This is too sad and silly to make jokes about. Don’t worry, that won’t stop me. The city is trying to sort out what to do with the growing number of unfinished (or partially sold) condo buildings. Clever ideas, like moderate or low-income housing (Mike has to make his 160,000 unit promise somehow — well, actually he doesn’t, since the only organized opposition he faces is Mark Greene sadly collecting signatures on street corners; call him, he’ll come to your bar mitzvah!) are on the horizon, but no one really knows how to implement this. Brokers, who will never stop telling you to buy now or be priced out forever, worry about what these plans will do to local [chortle] real estate values. Ha ha. Real estate values — where, in Bushwick? Buildings underwritten with eight and nine figure mortgages by obscure Euro banks who probably sold off the risk to AIG? Property values? To be 2008 again! We were all so young!

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Hey, look, I like the new, well-appointed and detailed ‘bespoke’ condo development by the too clever by half named Roman & Williams as much as the next CAD-hating, Mac-loving crank, but reading the preciousness doled out by Metropolis in their profile, which closes with doting on the Ace hotel without noting the checkered process of evicting existing tenants is more than enough to convince you that their vision of New York dovetails nicely with the meathead masses that surround the other recent high profile R&W project mentioned: interiors at the Standard Hotel.

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From the Duane Reade (formerly King’s, formerly Gas Station, does this seem like a Voice ad for a show at the Merc circa 1994 yet?)  at 2nd Street and B. The people have spoken, clearly.

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The information that leaks out of the ongoing investigations and criminal proceedings involving 130 Liberty Street (allow me this: never hire a company named after a Ayn Rand character — really) continue to be a sad testimony to the continued incompetence of just about everyone involved in the rebuilding. The kicker is, of course, that there are other remnants of the 9/11 attack, that, almost eight years later, still await disposition (demolition, renovation), notably Fiterman Hall, the CUNY facility that faces the entry court to 7 WTC. Though far less troubling, it too musters some bad practices in demolition. Related: official trinket shop. Finally.

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The bloom is really off the rose: the Times does a fairly nasty (in that effete “we probably were in a dining club with him” kind of way that is typical for them) take down of the compensation structure for the top two execs at the High Line Foundation. If this continues, we’re definitely going to have to graph the relative strength of “my park is 154 times larger than yours!” against the “well, mine is thirty feet higher” argument.

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Slow and steady wins the race.

Not all the best ideas are the simplest. But some do stand out for the perversity of their effectiveness, yet go wanting because of the difficulty in getting people to see the greater long-term benefit against immediate short-term self-interest. Any time ‘self-interest’ and ‘failed good ideas’ there’s a high likelihood that you are talking about traffic management. The two simplest dicta that prove that you can’t trust people to make good judgments at the macro or mirco level are capacity — where it’s been proven irrefutably that if you increase road capacity congestion increases — and efficiency, where every annoying behavior (racing ahead to merge out of turn, sitting in an intersection, etc) increases travel and time, yes, congestion. So today you might save five minutes, but over the long term, math and averages are against you.

It’s pretty easy to demonstrate how congestion develops, though just about everyone with a license doesn’t need a java applet to prove it. The challenge is to modify the behavior of all participants at an equal rate, since outliers experience disproportionate benefit at the expense of the whole. Eventually this benefit fails as everyone self-selects as an exceptional. In more simple terms, if everyone respect a queue, it moves at an ideal rate. A small number of people can cut the line, and the overall progress is still close to optimal. But as everyone attempts to move ahead, you are left with a scrum of unorganized people at the node, and everyone knows what that moment is like.

Admittedly, most cultures aren’t predisposed to high levels of self-organization. And most instances of authoritarian imposition do not work over the longer term (and fairly so – a healthy amount of self-interest should be one of the motivating factors). As much as berating people into becoming better behaved dovetails nicely with my personality, it’s not a template for change agents.

Perversely enough, there are alternates out there that show signs of working. And they do that by proposing the exact opposite: the complete removal of all regulation. The concept is called ‘shared space‘; brilliant in its simplicity and as likely doomed to marginalization. You can’t really even call it a policy. It’s more of an anti-bureaucracy, the putting into place — through inaction — the notion that personal responsibility is the best regulator or human behavior.

We already have some versions of this — the generally established notion that you walk on the right in the subway. Up stairs, or down, the right way is just that. Here and there the MTA has tried to institutionalize this with signage, but most people learn the hard way (at least if they are in my way). It generally works.

The prevalence of jaywalking, and reasonable (a highly qualified statement, given the still distressing amounts of rude behavior on the part of cyclists) amounts of cycling traffic signal flouting also represent versions of this logic. And though any experience with driving in the city would lead you to think it’s hopeless to add drivers, it might not be as far fetched a notion as you might think.

I live near Pitt Street. And I’ve noted previously that I do own a car, so I have a regular occasion to drive around and through it in search of my unfairly subsidized parking. Pitt Street, for most of its brief existence — running between Grand Street and Houston (where it becomes Avenue C for all you weekend transients looking for Babel and Porch) — is an unwieldy beast that looks in parts like a parking lot for a police and fire precinct or an open air market where the vendors have just packed up, and is the closest thing to a Shared Streets experiment you will find in Manhattan. And, for the most part, it seems to be a pretty successful one.

The width of the street, along with the tail in parking (abetted by residents who take a liberal attitude about standing and double parking) barely looks like a street. Delancey intersects an awkward angle as it constricts, the most notable marking being a skewed crosswalk that is taken as a suggestion by just about everyone. Turning north, the only major traffic regulator is the light a Rivington, which serves to manage cars, but barely. People cross at all points with immunity. Kids ride their bikes when they aren’t wandering someone on the expanse. Emergency crews from the Engine 28/Ladder 11 house on 2nd Street that are assisting on calls with Fort Pitt routinely head southbound (against traffic), without even disturbing traffic flow, as the street is so wide.

There are a number of extenuating circumstances regarding this solitary example – it’s a marginal neighborhood, relative to tourist and commercial needs. And it is a dead end or inefficient for most automotive routes. While this means it would be difficult to recreate initially, it also demonstrates that communal acceptance (in this case through a rather anarchic system of non-enforcement) can enable circumstances like this. The instances where it has been applied have proved to be just as safe (if not more so) that what we currently have in place. And this famous video, which is not the result of any top down organization, is a good exemplar of how self-regulation can work in practice.

Unfortunately there is little support for radical revisions. Even the limited steps that are being undertaken are being undermined by politicians who would nominally support such measures, out of cheap pandering to hyper local (and politically-connected) interests. How such ideas get a sounding board when much of our streetscape is managed at the state level is a question I don’t really have an answer to. But it seems like a good way to think about where we should head.

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Bicycle Parking in Groningen (image courtesy Flickr user Gary73)

Bicycle Parking in Groningen (image courtesy Flickr user Gary73)

Writing about bicycle parking is like writing about the World Trade Center: it hardly ever progresses. Here’s a good roundup of the national situation, written after our recent symbolically impressive but mostly ineffectual Bicycle Access Bill. Sadly, we aren’t the only advanced metropolis that can’t effect modern solutions to simplistic problems.

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Fast fact: The amount of available commercial office space for lease in New York City has doubled in the past year. That means that NYC’s unoccupied, leasable office space is the 15th largest CBD in the country.

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Much greener than we thought.

Okay, first off: I haven’t been to the High Line. I know, I know. The Most Important Park of Our Time. Or at least the most important park to Ed Norton. So yeah, I hear it’s great. I would hope so. With a construction cost of around $12M per acre (that’s $275/sf, which would build you a luxury house just about anywhere outside of the city), the costs are certainly great. And like the park, they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

The current estimate for upkeep is in the neighborhood of $500K per acre per annum. That compares to $5K on average citywide for parks. Other recent renovations that operate under the same private/public control structure, such as Bryant Park, requires $324K. They are roughly the same size, and though the High Line is a more complex site, the variety of programming at Bryant Park pushes costs a long way as well.

Further afield, Brooklyn Bridge Park, which is currently being planned, has a construction cost in the $4.25MM per acre cost (though that seems to go up every time someone looks the budget), and a maintenance projection of $188K  per acre, based on a total yearly budget of $16MM. Like the High Line, it’s based on some unstable calculations, basing revenue on ground rents — not unlike Battery Park City, but with a salient difference that BPC ground rents are based on existing, complete buildings, whereas the only potential income producing property for Brooklyn right now is looking mighty shaky.

The High Line didn’t even have that sort overly optimistic source of funding. The city has committed a $1MM (which is a solid $165K an acre), and the proposed BID, which has plenty of people pissed and was not even part of the original plan, would only generate equal the city’s end, leaving a half-filled hole. In year one.

Where was the planning for this? When you put up drawings with carazy plantings, outdoor film screenings need a bouncer for crowd control, one would think someone at least took a gander at how much plant food would be needed. And have you seen those benches? Ipe wood can be 40% more than cedar. Though it lasts longer, the issue is the wear and tear of New York and its eager masses of street artists, malcontents and other near vandals can short circuit long-term cost considerations.

Is it fair to be so churlish, or at least small minded, about cost, in the face of such a civic triumph? That’s a little sarcastic, surely, because it is an example of incredible effort and impressive design. I can’t say great design, because I haven’t been there, and because one of the qualification is not just the parade, but the clean up. And someone really didn’t plan well for the clean up. You can castigate the Brooklyn Bridge Park people for having eyes bigger than their stomach, but at least they measured pretty carefully.

I wasn’t overly impressed with the Diller, Scofidio & Renfro submission. Steven Holl, even back in the go-go days of 2004, was skeptical of the long-term prospect and costs. DS&R, with sexy renderings that better reflected the boundless delusion of everyone on the far west side, won in a walk. Probably worked better having exciting drawings and excitable architects when raising money. Holl, with all his experience, a whiff of cynicism about New York and civic development (and perhaps of cresting the hill of real estate nirvana) wasn’t the standard bearer you would design for such a situation.

I don’t know that it’s fair to say park development is experiencing an unprecedented ‘renaissance’. Like most capital improvements, as the city pulled out from the black hole that was the 70’s and got back on track with subway stations, streets and the like, parks certainly came along for the ride. One of the inadvertent benefits of the long gap in development was the Westway lawsuit which, even as it may have been an excellent plan — one can never really be sure if the best parts of a plan are embraced, as evidenced by the WTC development — it cemented environmental opposition and provided the organizing framework that birthed the greening of the waterfront movement that resulted in the Hudson River Park.

Over the past twenty years we’ve been the beneficiaries of two parallel developments: original compelling park spaces, and rather expensive park spaces. One certainly goes hand in hand with the other. And the results are impressive, as a design experience and a park user. But this increasing complexity comes at very real costs. And even though our per capita spending on parks lags compared to some other large cities, we have been offloading those costs to potentially conflict-laden deals. Witness the number of weeks a year you can’t get into Bryant Park, or the ‘controlled’ access to the High Line. As we come to expect more of our parks — more discrete programmed spaces, more exceptional visuals — the logic of private funding will be more intractable. This is not entirely a consequence of constituent demand. The renovation of Washington Square Park was hotly contested by many residents, near and far, most of whom seemed to embrace the notion of Park As It Was. The ‘improvements’ were largely cosmetic and served a set of interests that were considerably narrower than the vast melting pot we typically associate with a bustling metropolis.

People who are experienced with getting things done in the city are understandably skeptical of start simple and make better. Public projects like the Second Avenue subway and private ones like the Hearst Tower can take decades.

And maybe that is okay. Cities can take centuries to build. Instead of rushing into obligations that are difficult and expensive to unwind (Port Authority anyone?), modesty might be the best policy. As much as we — well some of us — stand in admiration of the accomplishment that the High Line is, not nearly as many are standing to ensure its longevity. When the very real spectre of admission fees may loom just weeks after the unveiling, it’s not hard to argue the plan as it lies is not only not a long-term model, it may not be a short-term one either.

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Coney Island Low.

Astroland is officially, officially closed as of last weekend, with the completion of its last lease. This is not quite the collapse of Chumley’s (which may actually return now that owning a landmark approaches being as lucrative as selling a couple studio apartments once again), since the notion of a “golden era” of Coney is a slippery proposition. Is it the days when it was a gambling destination? A rough and tumble but thriving amusement paradise? A wind — and trash — strewn ghost town, depressed enough that an absurd enough to be brilliant effort to revive a freak show would prove be the enduring symbol for resurgence for over a decade?

And would it surprise you to learn that the long, practically inevitable decline was set to rolling by names as reviled as they are familiar? That’s right: Robert Moses rezoned what he didn’t outright level, though his plans to eliminate amusement zoning altogether eventually failed. And decades later a developer named Trump stepped in with the tried and dull model of luxury housing being the solution to the problem of a vibrant and colorful seashore. He failed, but not before he amassed enough money to leave a pile of it to his officious son, teaching him the most valuable lesson of New York living: use someone else’s fortune and skill to promote yourself and then take all the credit.

Trump’s court battles set the stage for the next 30 years of Coney development: rapid valuation and devaluation of the land as various proposals were floated and folded, all of them highly speculative, all of them highly improbable. In that sense, gambling has returned to the peninsula, albeit at high stakes and with few seats at the table. And every wager was dependent on the panacea of “luxury” housing. If one silver lining has come from the Great Contraction (still coming soon to most of Manhattan) is that the simplistic notion that the relatively narrow, single-use notion of “luxury” (density higher than social housing, some upscale shops and eateries, with a precious, albeit tiny, greenspace touted as ‘amenity’. Oh, and a gym with three treadmills) is the most economically effective use of scare urban resources.

Regardless of the baubles attached to the renderings that ostensibly recall the amusement past, we cannot escape this mantra: Coney cannot be saved without overpriced condos. The best analogy would be shoving a person’s head underwater and then claiming the only way to save them is to sell them a scuba tank. And now that we have incontrovertible proof that real estate is beholden to the business cycle like any other industry, the spectre of looming, gleaming, Scarano-quality monoliths can be dismissed as the short-sighted, greedy over-reaches they are.

The developers will piece together documentation about land and construction costs, returns and carrying costs, all the while holding out the other hand for some type of tax break, claiming they have no other options. But if we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that the brittle financing is but a short-term squeeze completely disconnected from urban reality. If you doubt this argument, take a quick review of the large, residential-driven development schemes proposed recently:

The Brooklyn Bridge Park: on hold because developers don’t feel confident they can sell condos that will steal views from Brooklyn Heights, the tabula rasa of gentrification. Pier 17, dunzo as General Growth slides from a legit stock to over the counter (hell, it might be under the counter by now). Governor’s Island: broke-ass. The WTC site: replacing two million square feet of office space with ‘stumps’. Atlantic Yards: now doubtful we will even see a Brooklyn Nets, let alone ‘Miss Brooklyn’ — even the Williamsburg Bank Building (excuse me, the Hanson) is going rental. Hudson Yards: next year — for reals, sayeth Related.

In short, are there any large-scale schemes moving forward? The High Line had a head start, and depends on a lot of private donations (which were generously extracted from the developers looking to secure an amenity of equal Tyler Brule-ishness to accompany their $50 million over-budget towers). Willet’s Point? 125th Street? The Williamsburg waterfront? Nondo city, and that’s only because the Toll Brothers didn’t have as much high-flying debt as GGP. Give it a couple more months. It will topple over the Edge, surely.

Do we have any counter-examples? Was it ever possible to set up a tax abatement program that would result in housing that could provide middle class families a decent existence? One that was cash flow positive for decades? One that was bought out with a massively leveraged house of cards notion of conversion to the very luxury that was claimed to be the only future? And that is now cratering under the weight of all that debt? Nope, nothing like that to be found in Manhattan.

Only when the deals turn sour do people wax poetic. To speak ill of the pyramid as it’s being constructed is to undermine the mojo. Once the majesty of its perverse uselessness is complete, and eroding, people wallow in the truth of the narrative. “No next time, no next time” is the chorus. Astroland wasn’t really done in by malice. The owners, after all, cashed out to the tune of $30 million dollars, a number that will seem princely and astute in the coming years as the weeds return again to Surf Avenue. Nathan’s will stand strong opposite the lovely new train station, and boardwalk will slowly become the plasticwalk. Do not fear: it might take a few years, or a decade or two, and some one will pop up, renderings in hand. First the housing. Then the accommodation of the amusement requirement. Then the request for a zoning variance and a subsidy. Then the outcry, petitions and activist organizing. This sort of dust up is the only renewable resource this city has; too bad we can’t mine it for rent.

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