Archive for November 2011

Citizen Input on 9th and Colorado: Connectivity and Public Space

At its meeting on November 10th the Colorado Boulevard Healthcare District (CBHD) Board gave its blessing to Sembler Company’s latest conceptual plan for developing the infill site at 9th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard.  Some details were reported here, with a more complete report filed by Rory Seeber for Life on Capitol Hill.  The plan has been discussed with and approved by most relevant neighborhood associations (the Congress Park vote is still pending).  The November 10 Board meeting summarized the project’s guiding principles and community outreach efforts.  The Board Chair, Mary Nell Wolff, suggested that this outreach has made for a better plan than the one that was initially proposed.

9th and Colorado Conceptual Overview (Sembler Company and Davis Partnership)

There’s a lot to like in the revised plan.  The emphasis is clearly on making active, pedestrian-friendly streets and spaces.  The latest plan has one-third the vehicular density of the original plan developed by Shea Properties.  There will be much less surface parking than when the site was occupied by the Health Sciences Center.  Fifty percent of the total parking will be below grade.  The plan reflects great sensitivity to “view corridors.”  Screen walls and landscaping will make it almost impossible to see internal surface parking lots from anywhere on the perimeter of site.

A new feature is a mid-block plaza between 9th and 11th avenues (upper left on the map). This will serve as an enhanced “front door” to the site when entered off of Colorado Boulevard.  The plaza will front a 100,000 square foot “large format” store.   The mature grove of trees along 9th Avenue will be preserved.  The annex to the historically-designated Nurse’s Dorm will be removed and thereby expand the size of the Quad.  The Quad is the primary element of an open space plan that exceeds the 10% required by law.  Interestingly, the Quad contains the oldest black walnut trees in Colorado.  I like the allowance for a twenty foot wide, north-south pedestrian alley that breaks up the line of retail buildings located to the west of the Quad.  This narrow thoroughfare strikes me as being akin to the small, unnamed alley at Belmar in Lakewood that connects the Belmar plaza to West Alaska Drive.  The narrowness gives a bit of an “Old European” flavor to that site.

Alley at Belmar, Looking from Plaza to West Alaska Drive (D. Saitta)

A natural foods grocer will occupy the building south of 9th Avenue on Colorado Boulevard.  It’s about the right size for a Sunflower Market, although the tenant has not been identified. The tenant for the large format store has also not been identified, but according to the developer it will be “something like a Target.”  The original proposal for a second floor movie theatre has been ruled out, for logistical reasons.  A fitness center is still a possibility.  As previously reported, the plan is to include 450 residences in buildings at the southeast corner of the site.  These will all be multi-family rentals but they could become condos later.

In the question and answer period Board members and citizens raised a number of concerns.  One citizen questioned the overall reduced footprint of this latest plan compared to earlier ones.  She suggested that small is not necessarily better if all we’re looking at is retail and residential space. She suggested that the “urban grain” would benefit from more office space above and beyond what’s already designated for the historic Nurse’s Dorm.  Other questions were raised about bicycle connectivity and the energy efficiency of buildings.  The site will be sensitive to “multi-modality” but there is no set-aside for new bike lanes.  Existing bike routes may be enhanced and there will likely be bike racks in the Quad.  All buildings will be of “green” design given that it is pretty much de facto these days.  All the building contractors will be local.

The main concern is about traffic volume and flow, especially congestion on the already-busy 8th Avenue.  The three story parking deck located just south of the Quad was identified as a potential problem-maker since it would receive and discharge cars onto 8th.  To address this problem one citizen made an interesting suggestion; specifically, he proposed flipping the parking deck with the retail building located catty-corner to the northwest.  This adjustment would feed cars onto 9th Avenue, which has long been underused as a traffic thoroughfare.  The developers responded that the deck is located where it is in order to serve visitors to the “Restaurant Row” planned for the 8th Avenue edge.  Plus, the developers pointed out that they expect the number of cars visiting the site to be approximately one-third the number that visited when the Health Sciences Center was in full operation.

During this exchange I found myself thinking that this is a relatively small site so it doesn’t seem that having such close proximity between parking deck and restaurants is really necessary. After all, the site’s top priority is walkability.  No one mentioned it, but another virtue to flipping these structures would be to more fully enclose the Quad on its south side with retail space.  The Quad is  designed to be the site’s beating heart.  It seems a shame to have it bordered on one whole side by a parking deck.  Full enclosure unencumbered by parking is an element shared by many of the great public plazas and squares of the world.   Populating at least a few of these commercial spaces with tenants dedicated to various arts—visual and/or healing—would be a nice touch aimed at better connecting the site to its history.  Flipping the structures would compromise the quality of the alley discussed above, but it would invite construction of another alley between the relocated retail space and Restaurant Row.  The Row is already planned to have entrances on both its north and south sides, so squeezing some alley space in here would perhaps enhance the “urban grain” desired by some citizens.  Restaurant Row was described a couple of times by Mary Nell Wolff as “New Urban” in spirit. However, it might benefit even more from a conscious effort to add a touch of “Old Europe.”  If there’s an absolute need to stay with the parking deck then it might be fronted on its north side with spaces akin to those that comprise the arts-and-design focused Block 7 at Belmar, a line of studios that also front a parking deck.

Block 7 at Belmar (D. Saitta)

Sembler Company hopes to close on the property in late spring or summer 2012. Demolition is planned beginning summer 2012 and is scheduled to last about 15 months.  An opening is envisioned for summer/fall 2014.  The next CBHD Board meeting is scheduled for December 1 at 4:00 PM in the Molly Blank Conference Center on the campus of National Jewish Hospital.

Eminent Domain and Economic Development: An Admirable Colorado Example

(Speaking of Pruitt-Igoe and “urban renewal”, a version of the following appeared in yesterday’s Brighton Blade, co-authored with Kyle Cascioli and Ron Throupe)

The Metro Wastewater Reclamation District (MWRD) recently paid for 84 families and businesses to relocate in order to make way for the district’s new $470 million dollar wastewater treatment plant in Brighton, Colorado.  MWRD District manager Catherine Gerail was quoted as being very pleased that the city was able to help all parties move to new homes—including a colony of feral cats that now occupies a new space at the Brighton Animal Shelter.  We’re pleased too!

We were among those shocked when, in 2005, the US Supreme Court ruled in Kelo v. City of New London (Connecticut) that municipalities have the authority to exercise their power of eminent domain and legally transfer property from one private owner to another in order to further economic development as a remedy for urban blight.  New London used its authority to transfer 115 residential and commercial lots encompassing 90 waterfront acres adjacent to a Phizer Corporation research facility to a local developer.  The city defined “blight” to include single family homes with one car garages—which happened to describe just about all of the middle class bungalows and historic homes located in the 90 acres desired by the city.  However, the developer was unable to finance the project and redevelopment of the site never occurred.  Today the razed 90 acre site stands vacant, a symbol of failed redevelopment, eroded property rights, and municipal economic greed.

By all accounts, the MWRD’s negotiation with 84 families living at the Sylmar Manor Mobile Home Park and the Seven Sons Auto Salvage operation in Brighton appears to have been conducted with far more sensitivity than the one in New London.  The MWRD’s commitment to negotiate and settle with the displaced families and businesses is exemplary given their available options under Eminent Domain.    We also believe that the MWRD’s  decision to acquire these private lands “at arms length” for a legitimate public use and not for speculative economic development—in a way that respected the citizens who would be adversely affected by the decision—was the most humane approach.  The resulting satisfaction on all sides seems to bear that out.

The City of Aurora, Colorado—whose council voted last summer, above citizen objections, to designate 125 vacant acres near the Denver International Airport as “blighted” in order to clear the way for a private corporation to build a hotel and conference center—could take a lesson from the Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation District.

Has Pruitt-Igoe Been Demythologized?

The short answer is Yes and No. Details ahead…

Last week I finally had a chance to see the much-heralded film The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History at the Denver Starz Film Festival.  I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a powerful and visually stimulating piece of work.  I learned several new things about this failed experiment in post-war “urban renewal” from both the film and the talkback with filmmaker Chad Friedrichs who was on hand to discuss his work.

The Wendell O. Pruitt and William L. Igoe housing blocks were originally drawn up in 1952 as two racially-segregated, “modernist” high rise developments in St. Louis.  Pruitt was for blacks on the north side of town, and Igoe was for whites on the south side.  Failure to secure the south side parcels of land in a timely manner led to the developments being combined on one 57 acre site to the north of the city. There were some whites who lived at Pruitt-Igoe when it opened in 1954.  However, that year’s US Supreme Court’s decision forcing desegregation effectively transformed Pruitt-Igoe into an all black community.

Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project, St. Louis

The film successfully debunks one of the myths that I completely agree surrounds Pruitt-Igoe—that black culture and the absence of proper middle-class values were responsible for community’s disintegration.  Although the sample is very small, interviews with former residents reveal the pride and love that people had for the place.  One describes her 11th floor apartment as a “poor man’s penthouse.”  Others fondly (and even tearfully) recall the buildings being illuminated by hundreds of lights at Christmas time, the appealing aromas of many dinners being prepared, and the lively “block party” atmosphere created by record players being pulled to doorways and windows.

I confess to using Pruitt-Igoe in my teaching in the second “mythical” sense that  Katharine Bristol, in a 1991 article in the Journal of Architectural Education, sought to debunk: that modernist architecture was to blame for the community’s disintegration.   I’ve always found something pedagogically useful in Charles Jencks’ famous equating of the controlled (and nationally-televised) implosion of Pruitt-Igoe’s first tower at 3:00 PM on March 16, 1972 with “the death of modernism.”   The issue is whether this is overstating things.  Friedrichs’ film does not really address Pruitt-Igoe’s architecture one way or another, treating it more as a setting and backdrop for behaviors that are better explained in other ways.  But it clearly channels the essence of Bristol’s argument.  In his talkback Friedrichs pulled no punches in dismissing the role that architecture played in the housing project’s disintegration.  He noted that modernist high rises for poor people were constructed in many other American cities throughout this period and most of those didn’t suffer the same fate as Pruitt-Igoe.

The Death of Modernism: March 16, 1972, 3:00 PM

The alternative explanation suggested in the film, and reiterated by Friedrichs in his talkback, invokes a complex mix of economic and social factors that brought many American cities—especially St. Louis—into crisis after World War II.  De-industrialization produced dramatic job losses in urban cores.  Federal housing and highway policies incentivized white flight to suburbs.  Projected increases in urban population size did not pan out as cities were rebuilding, and overbuilding, their centers.  St. Louis hit its population peak of around 850,000 people in 1950 and it was all downhill after that.  The St. Louis Housing Authority planned Pruitt-Igoe’s construction but failed to plan for its maintenance.  Upkeep money had to come from tenant rents, but as occupancy declined, poverty deepened, and costs escalated the money just wasn’t there.  St. Louis Housing Authority policy also prohibited able-bodied adult males from inhabiting the apartments of women receiving welfare assistance. This contributed to the break-up of families and frayed the community’s social fabric.  Police stopped coming to the projects when the muggers and drug-dealers moved in.  Racial discrimination, including institutional racism, complicated the lives and life chances of the residents.  Pruitt-Igoe’s undoing was, as one interviewed expert opined, a “slow motion Katrina.”

I certainly agree with the importance of these economic and institutional forces—also nicely detailed in Bristol’s article—in determining Pruitt-Igoe’s fate.  But given the importance of architecture in human affairs and, especially, its role in transforming built space into owned place  it seems short–sighted—and inconsistent with any explanation that invokes “complexity” of cause—to rule it out completely.  Even Bristol notes that architectural design was one factor in Pruitt-Igoe’s disintegration, albeit not the most important one.  Mention is made in her article, and also throughout Friedrichs’ film, of how various design elements conspired against residents.  These include deliberately small apartments, undersized kitchen appliances, inadequate plumbing, and other cheap furnishings.  Undersized elevators that “skip-stopped” on every third floor increased the personal risk to women and children (especially when things started deteriorating after 1957) by forcing them to reach their apartments through long corridors and narrow staircases.  The elevator stop “galleries” themselves—intended to support community association—came to be described by residents as “gauntlets.”  The open, park-like spaces around modernist towers have never been particularly inviting or well-used areas no matter where they’ve been built, and Pruitt-Igoe was no exception.  The standardized, non-human scale of the towers—nicely captured by the film’s compelling aerial and ground level photographs—gives off a decidedly sinister vibe when viewed from particular angles and in particular lights.

Pruitt-Igoe Corridor

I’m also tempted to suggest that the small apartments, and perhaps even the shared spaces, were incompatible with the social values borne by migrants coming into St. Louis from the south who, ultimately, traced their heritage to the strong communal cultures of West Africa.   Some reviews of the film (e.g., here) note that the nearby Carr Square Village—a low rise, lower density development with a comparable demographic makeup that was built in 1942—did not suffer from the vacancy and crime that afflicted Pruitt-Igoe. Interestingly, Pruitt-Igoe was originally designed as a mix of buildings of varying heights and densities rather than the 33 eleven-story high-rises that were eventually built. We’ll never know if the Pruitt-Igoe story would have been different had the original design plan been approved.

Carr Square Village (from Oscar Newman, Creating Defensible Space)

Bristol rightly notes that failure to acknowledge wider political and economic conditions too often leads us to blame the people who’ve been victimized by those conditions. She notes that architects can’t be blamed for Pruitt-Igoe either, given their powerlessness to change the wider structures, practices, and attitudes that governed its construction. In another sense, however, architecture is the most important causal factor in Pruitt-Igoe’s story because it’s the one variable that was always under some sort of direct human control.  Pruitt-Igoe’s architects were clearly working under strict constraints imposed by the St. Louis Housing Authority.  But the design team consciously opted for the modernist program when other choices were available, and even Bristol notes that they were “insensitive” to the consequences of their choices.  Erring too much on the side of structural causality risks absolving these agents of too much responsibility.  There are times when the debate about Pruitt-Igoe should be diverted to what Bristol calls “the question of design.”  Today architects are increasingly taking advantage of their power of choice—and improved intercultural literacy—to design affordable housing that’s more livable and lovable (e.g., here and here).  Perhaps the most important lesson of Pruitt-Igoe is that we should always and everywhere see the life and death of buildings as complexly overdetermined in ways that encourage us to take greater responsibility for those things in life that we can, in fact, influence and control. In that sense Pruitt-Igoe hasn’t been, and doesn’t deserve to be, demythologized.

Postscript: Carr Square Village has been replaced with even lower-density single family housing. The site of Pruitt-Igoe remains a ruin.

Update: The subject of Pruitt-Igoe is revisited here.