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New York

The Near-Death of Grand Central Terminal

It’s amazing how close New York came to losing Grand Central Station

Many consider the destruction of New York’s original Pennsylvania Station in 1963 to have been the architectural crime of the twentieth century. But few know how close we came to also losing its counterpart, Grand Central Terminal, a hub every bit as irreplaceable. Grand Central’s salvation has generally been told as a tale of aroused civic virtue, which it was. Yet it was, as well, an affirming episode for those of us convinced that our political culture has become an endless clown-car act with the same fools always leaping out.

“In New York then, I learn to appreciate the Italian Renaissance,” said Le Corbusier of Grand Central. “It is so well done that you could believe it to be genuine. It even has a strange, new firmness which is not Italian, but American.” It was not seen as such by its owner, New York Central Railroad, which viewed it mostly as a cash cow. As early as 1954, the Central proposed replacing the terminal with something called The Hyberboloid — an I. M. Pei monstrosity that, at 108 stories and 1,600 feet, would have become the world’s tallest building at the time. There was enough public outcry that a scaled-down Hyberboloid was built instead just north of Grand Central, where it was retitled the Pan Am (later the Met Life) Building. Even at a lesser height, it proved every bit as grotesque as promised.

Still unsatisfied, New York Central proposed in 1961 to build a three-level bowling alley over Grand Central’s Main Concourse, which would have required lowering the ceiling from sixty feet to fifteen and cutting off from view its glorious blue mural of the zodiac. This, too, was stopped. Foiled again, New York Central resorted to plastering the terminal with ads and bombarding travelers with canned Muzak, complete with commercials, over the public address system.

Meanwhile, in the angry atmosphere that followed the demolition of Penn Station, New York City finally got a Landmarks Preservation Commission, which designated Grand Central a landmark in 1967. But the terminal still wasn’t safe. Now hemorrhaging money as Americans turned away from trains and the passenger rail system began to collapse, the New York Central merged with its old rival, the Pennsylvania Railroad. The chairman and CEO of the new “Penn Central” was one Stuart Saunders, former CEO of the Pennsy, and the man who had torn down Penn Station to build the latest Madison Square Garden.

Bear with us here, as we trace how the troubled new railroad nearly succeeded in tearing down Grand Central — for it says much about how we conduct business and politics in America today.

Why Public Transit is Under Funded

The reason that public transit (and bike lanes) are underfunded is that the rich don’t rely on them

Another report has come out in support of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), an innovative way to provide public transit at a low cost with dedicated bus lanes, stops, and schedules.

The study (PDF), from pro-transit group Embarq, found that BRT drastically reduced commute times, improved air quality, and cut road fatalities in congested cities like Bogota, Istanbul, Johannesburg, and Mexico City. And we already know that BRT is one of the most cost-effective public transit investments a municipality can make.

The catch? In most cities examined in the report, those benefits only extend to low- and middle-class residents. (In Johannesburg, the poorest residents did not use BRT).

“Since the dominant benefit is travel time savings,” the study’s authors wrote, “the majority of benefits tend to accrue to the strata most represented by BRT users — typically lower- and middle-income.”

While it’s great to have a system that improves transportation access for the majority of a city’s population, BRT’s mass appeal could — ironically — be a political concern that prevents its adoption, at least in the U.S. As Alex Pareene wrote in Salon, public transit often suffers because politicians and donors rarely rely on it. The results show in the states, whose existing BRT systems lag behind those in cities around the world.

Even in densely populated and traditionally liberal cities like New York and Minneapolis, politicians neglect transit. And “because they don’t know or interact with or receive checks from people who rely on it every day, there’s almost no hope for cheap, efficient mass transit options anywhere,” Pareene wrote.

Indeed, the Embarq report echoes the public transit wealth gap, and cites that most BRT systems are often paid for by tax revenue collected from those who may never ride it. Bogota’s famed TransMilenio was financed by increased gasoline taxes, and all the systems required both substantial investment and support from municipalities.

But the Embarq report also showed that BRTs benefited cities with environmental and productivity gains more than they strained financial resources. For example, the average commuter in Istanbul now gets to and from work about an hour faster thanks to the Metrobüs, and Mexico City’s BRT system reduced air pollution enough to save 6,000 sick days a year.

As cities continue to grow and congestion increases, the benefits of BRT may become impossible to ignore — even to the rich and powerful folks who are stuck in traffic.

You see the same thing here in Saskatoon.  After last night’s City Council meeting, you could almost say the same things about bike lanes.

This will end up in the courts

Just after James Dolan spends almost a billion dollars in renovating MSG, New York City Council wants him to move out of it.

Madison Square Garden

By a vote of 47 to 1, the Council voted to extend the Garden’s special operating permit for merely a decade — not in perpetuity, as the owners of the Garden had requested, or 15 years, as the Bloomberg administration had intended.

Ten years should be enough time, officials said, for the Garden to find a new location and for the city to devise plans for an expanded Pennsylvania Station, which currently sits below the Garden, and the redevelopment of the surrounding neighborhood.

“This is the first step in finding a new home for Madison Square Garden and building a new Penn Station that is as great as New York and suitable for the 21st century,” said Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker. “This is an opportunity to reimagine and redevelop Penn Station as a world-class transportation destination.”

So let me get this straight, James Dolan spends almost a billion dollars of his own money and then the New York City Council says, “we want this back in 10 years because we seen an opportunity to redevelop Penn Station.”  Wouldn’t it have been wise to say that before the permits were issued?

To think that one can invest over $2 billion over a site over 50 years, make it into a global icon and then get told to move by New York City Council is pretty shocking.  Of course Dolan has the upper hand, I am not sure if the New York public would like the idea of the Knicks and Rangers moving out of Manhattan but even the New York market.  Those are loyal and affluent fan bases that reach far beyond the 20,000 people that watch each game in person.  I am not a fan of James Dolan but don’t count him out of this yet.

Remains from 9/11 are still sitting under a tarp on Staten Island

What in the world?

On the phone were Monica Gabrielle and Kristen Breitweiser. Their husbands died at the World Trade Center in the Sept. 11 attack. This week, a new effort to find remains from the site uncovered 39 pieces of what appeared to be human bones. That was the yield from the first three days of work in a process that is expected to go on for at least two months.

It turns out that 60 dump trucks’ worth of soil from the trade center site, identified as long as two and half years ago as possibly holding human remains, has been sitting untouched beneath a tarp on Staten Island. The startling possibility exists that the remains of a large number of people could be found and identified in the months ahead, nearly 12 years after the attack.

“We are not stupid,” Monica Gabrielle said, in classic understatement. “We wouldn’t be surprised if they are finding shards and tiny pieces down there 50 years from now.”

Ms. Breitweiser jumped in. “But if they found some of this stuff two years ago,” she asked, “what is the explanation for why it is sitting so long?”

Neither woman was in a hurry to make demands for attention from a public for whom Sept. 11 is an episode of faded power. Yet their relentlessness over the last 12 years has served major civic purposes that would otherwise not have been met.

The Cost of Professional Sports

If you live in New York, this should infuriate you

You might have missed this in the pre-holiday news dump, which it was specifically timed for—it’s a good idea to downplay the implications of a story like this. An agreement was announced in a “hastily called news conference” to keep the Bills in Buffalo (actually Orchard Park) through at least 2020. But the real story is in the details: the Bills have been allowed to pick up just 16 percent of the costs to keep them in town. If you’ve ever had the slightest curiosity as to how sweetheart a deal an NFL team can possibly get, the full agreement can be read below.

It’s going to cost $271 million for upgrades to Ralph Wilson Stadium and 10 years of running the place on gameday. The Bills will pay just $44 million of that. Erie County will cover $103 million, while the state of New York is on the hook for $123 million. If that turns out to be not cushy enough, the Bills can buy their way out of the lease after year seven. We and others have railed against the outrage of public financing for stadiums for years, but it’s still shocking to see in 2012 a textbook case of a community held for ransom, forced to give in to every last demand of a franchise threatening to move.

DL Skateboards

DL Skateboards is a custom handmade Brooklyn, NY skate shop operating out of a box truck outside of co-founding couple Lauren Andino and Derek Mabra‘s Greenpoint apartment building. The couple have been skateboarding most of their lives and started their small business producing 60’s-style cruisers on a whim. Check out this video from Cool Hunting of the couple out on their street, shaping one of the last decks before taking their business out to California and click through the screenshots above for a look at their operation.

How cool is it that the business is run out of a truck.  My question is would a business like this even be allowed to operate in Saskatoon?

Here is another artisan skateboard shop operating out of it’s community.

I love it.

A new perspective on crime

The NYPD is doing 360 degree panoramas of crime scenes now.

In 2009, to better record crime scenes, the New York City Police Department began using the Panoscan, a camera that creates high-resolution, 360-degree panoramic images. Each panorama takes between 3 to 30 minutes to produce, depending on the available light, and is added to a database where detectives can access it. Before the switch to the Panoscan, crime scene images sometimes took days to process. Now, soon after the photos are posted, investigators can point and click over evidence from a scene that they might have missed in the hectic hours after the crime.

The article is child friendly but the images are now as they are actual crime scene panoramas.

When police go bad

NYPD protest charges against their own bad cops

Okay, is this disturbing to anyone else?

As 16 police officers were arraigned at State Supreme Court in the Bronx, incensed colleagues organized by their union cursed and taunted prosecutors and investigators, chanting “Down with the D.A.” and “Ray Kelly, hypocrite.”

As the defendants emerged from their morning court appearance, a swarm of officers formed a cordon in the hallway and clapped as they picked their way to the elevators. Members of the news media were prevented by court officers from walking down the hallway where more than 100 off-duty police officers had gathered outside the courtroom.

The assembled police officers blocked cameras from filming their colleagues, in one instance grabbing lenses and shoving television camera operators backward.

The unsealed indictments contained more than 1,600 criminal counts, the bulk of them misdemeanors having to do with making tickets disappear as favors for friends, relatives and others with clout. But they also outlined more serious crimes, related both to ticket-fixing and drugs, grand larceny and unrelated corruption. Four of the officers were charged with helping a man get away with assault.

Jose R. Ramos, an officer in the 40th Precinct whose suspicious behavior spawned the protracted investigation, was accused of two dozen crimes, including attempted robbery, attempted grand larceny, transporting what he thought was heroin for drug dealers and revealing the identity of a confidential informant.

I guess we all can accept that there are bad cops.  There are hundreds of thousands of them in the United States and a simple law of averages say that tsome of them are going to be corrupt.  Police forces acknowledge this themselves when they have special units to investigate them or have a process where the RCMP or State Police investigate other police forces.

What really unnerves me is to see 100 colleagues supporting the bad cops and acting in a way that if they were on duty, would have an obligation to stop.

It can be put this way

“It is hard to see an upside in the way the anger was expressed, especially in Bronx County, where you already have a hard row to hoe in terms of building rapport with the community,” said Eugene J. O’Donnell, a professor of police studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “The Police Department is a very angry work force, and that is something that should concern people, because it translates into hostile interactions with people.”

The behavior could be construed as violating department rules. Even when officers are off duty, the police patrol guide states, “Conduct which brings discredit to the department or conduct in violation of law is unacceptable and will result in appropriate disciplinary measures.”

It gets better.

A police official said Mr. Kelly did not condone the hostile comments made by some officers. Particularly disturbing, the official said, was a news report that said some officers chanted “E.B.T.” at people lined up at a benefits center across the street, referring to electronic benefit transfer, the method by which welfare checks are distributed. The people had apparently chanted “Fix our tickets” to the officers.

“To begin ridiculing people in the welfare line across the street doesn’t endear you to the public eye,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to be heard directly criticizing members of the force.

And there is a union angle.

Prosecutors said the bulk of the vanished tickets were arranged by officials of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the city’s largest police union. All the officers charged with fixing tickets are either current or past union delegates or trustees.

During the investigation, overseen by the Bronx district attorney’s office, prosecutors found fixing tickets to be so extensive that they considered charging the union under the state racketeering law as a criminal enterprise, the tactic employed against organized crime families. But they apparently concluded that the evidence did not support that approach.

The Bronx district attorney, Robert T. Johnson, said the tickets fixed had robbed the city of $1 million to $2 million.

The prosecutors office is not amused.

During the investigation, overseen by the Bronx district attorney’s office, prosecutors found fixing tickets to be so extensive that they considered charging the union under the state racketeering law as a criminal enterprise, the tactic employed against organized crime families. But they apparently concluded that the evidence did not support that approach.

So let’s review.  According to the NY Times, a bad cop is under investigation for letting a friend deal drugs out of a couple of properties he owns.  While being wire tapped, he confessed to fixing tickets along with other officers, this widespread practice is actually being largely done by NYPD’s union leadership.  When charged with the crime, over 350 off duty officers start to protest and physically assault camera crews and taunt those receiving Social Assistance.

That is a huge problem and has probably set back policing in the Bronx for a generation.

8 Hours In Brooklyn

You can read the back story here.  Now how do I get the boss to let me get a Phanton Flex camera.  It only costs $2500/day to rent.

Increasing your expenses to save you money?

Yeah that makes sense to me as well.  In case you missed it, New York City is planning to cut a voucher program for 15,000 families which will in all likelihood force them back into the New York City sheltering program.

Spending on homeless shelters in New York City could increase by up to 66 percent next year because of the elimination of a generous rental voucher program for poor families, according to a report by the city’s Independent Budget Office released on Friday.

The city decided to end the program, known as Advantage, last week because of state budget cuts. As a result, many of the 15,000 families that depended on the program for rental subsidies will probably be forced to return to shelter.

The budget office said that if 70 percent of families fall back into the system, spending on shelters would increase by $455 million next year. The city, state and federal government share shelter costs.

“It is both unconscionable and unacceptable that this program is set to be eliminated without any safety nets in place,” said Annabel Palma, chair of the City Council’s General Welfare Committee.

The Department of Homeless Services has said the elimination of the Advantage program was necessary because the city could not afford to pay for the program without help from the state.

In a statement, the Department of Homeless Services said it agreed with Ms. Palma but directed blame at Albany. “The state should not have abruptly backed out of its commitment to fund Advantage with no plan for the 15,000 households already in the program and the thousands of shelter families who were counting on the subsidy,” said Barbara Brancaccio, a deputy commissioner.

So how much is being saved? 

The city and state disagree on the numbers; city officials say the program costs $140 million annually, while the state says the cost is $103 million. The two also do not agree on what amount of financing the state is cutting.

Wonderful math.  Cutting $140 million which will cost the city of New York $455 million.  It’s not only that but it’s lost tax revenues from people who will lose jobs because of being back in shelters.  According to Pathways to Housing website, it’s $57/night to place a person in their own apartment and offer up follow up visits (which drop in time), $73 a night to place someone in a shelter, $164 a night in jail, $519 a night in emergency, and $1185 a night in a psychiatric hospital.  The $455 million may be a low number when all is said and done.  Let’s hope they keep the programs for both those in need of the program and the taxpayers who will be paying for its cancellation.  New York politics at it’s finest.

Why don’t more people live in a most “livable city”?

The Financial Times asks why more people don’t live in places like Vancouver?

“Sure, Vancouver is beautiful,” says Kotkin, “but it’s also unaffordable unless you’re on an expense account and your company is paying your rent.” Burdett agrees: “Economically all these cities at the top of the polls are also in the top league.” In fact, it can often be exactly the juxtaposition of wealth and relative poverty that makes a city vibrant, the collision between the two worlds. Where parts of big cities have declined, through the collapse of industries or the fears about immigration that led to what urbanists have termed the “donut effect” (in which white populations flee to the suburbs, leaving minorities in the centres), there is space to be filled by artists and architects, by poorer immigrants arriving with a drive to make money and by the proliferation of food outlets, studios and galleries. These, in turn, attract the wealthy back to the centre, at first to consume, and then to gentrify. Whether in New York’s SoHo, Chelsea or Brooklyn, in Berlin’s Mitte or London’s Shoreditch, Hoxton and now Peckham, it is at these moments of radical change that cities begin to show potential for real transformation of lives, or for the creation of new ideas, culture, cuisine and wealth. Once gentrification has occurred, bohemians may whinge about being priced out, as they always have done but, in a big enough city they are able to move on and find the next spot.

I also learned that I need to stop complaining about the Study Stone Centre Building. It’s ugliness is good for Saskatoon.

There is one criterion which throws up shockingly counter-intuitive results – beauty. On this criterion alone, almost any Tuscan hill town, perhaps Venice, perhaps Paris, would come out on top, yet none of these are there. Most of the beauty in the cities which occupy the tops of the leagues seem to ghettoise their beauty outside the city. They have convenient escapes, though the most beautiful and enjoyable – Rio, San Francisco and others – are curiously absent from the lists. The problem is that beauty doesn’t do you any good at all. It’s not a factor for the efficient, mid-sized chart toppers – though places such as Zurich certainly have their lovely bits. But it also damages your chances of making it into the disaffected megacities mentioned at the start of this article. The most beautiful cities become monuments to their own elegance, immobile and unchangeable. They cannot accommodate the kind of dynamic change and churn that keeps cities alive. In London, New York and Berlin, it is their very ugliness which keeps them flexible.

The Worst of Saskatoon

When we moved to Saskatoon in the mid-80s, there was a magazine called Western Living that we received and it listed the Sturdy Stone Centre as one of the ugliest buildings in Western Canada (Moose Jaw’s crushed can was also on that list).   I am not a big fan of brutalist architecture either downtown or elsewhere in the city (the same firm designed the College of Education building) and the Sturdy Stone Centre falls into that category.

Study Stone Centre in Saskatoon

Of course it isn’t Saskatoon’s only example of bad brutalistic architecture.  The Federated Co-operatives Building rivals it, concrete block by concrete block.

The Federated Co-operative Building in Saskatoon

It was built during the great window shortage of the 1970s.  I couldn’t find out who the architect was but who would want windows facing the riverbank anyways?  It takes bland architecture to a whole new level.  Two sides without windows, no distinguishing features, it kind of defines a new kind of architecture, prairie brutalist.

Every city has their own examples of it.  I remember when I first saw Boston’s City Hall and I thought to myself, how did that thing get here and why has it not been demolished?  In Liverpool there is the Metropolitan Cathedral, in New York there is the Port Authority Bus Terminal and in Toronto, there is the famous Fort Book, a library so inviting that it was used for exterior shots of the prison setting in Resident Evil: Afterlife.  

Holiday Inn SaskatoonMy point in all of this is to show what happens when a city doesn’t have or take it’s own design guidelines seriously.  While the Study Stone Centre does have street life aspects incorporated into it, the Federated Co-op building does not.  When these are absent or ignored (like the city is doing in the warehouse district), you get left with cold impersonal buildings that are defined more by parking lots rather than what they contribute to city life.  I keep thinking the city has learned it’s lesson but then again by looking at some of the latest developments take form, maybe not.

The truth is that a city is the one that creates it’s architectural ethos.  Years ago I was in Chicago when strongman Mayor Richard Daly threatened to halt new developments unless the architecture improved and met city guidelines.  When I was in Toronto and I wandered through the Allen Lambert Galleria, which came as a result of the city of Toronto’s public art requirements.  Even Martinsville has a neighbourhood with some architectural controls in it (must have stucco).  A city can lay down standards and expect that they are followed. 

Allen Lambert Galleria

A quick look at 275 2nd Avenue South shows that not only can projects meet city design guidelines, they can surpass them (in this case going for LEED Gold Certification).  A decade ago the city was desperate for new development but things have changed and how we handle the prosperity will shape the city for decades if not longer.  Is the next 75 years going to be dominated by buildings sitting on parking garages or something better?

North America – Western Europe equivalent latitude maps

These cool maps comes from Matt Haughey who was wondering about bike race conditions on different continents on Metafilter.  Click on either map for a full sized view.

europe_usjuxv2 europe_usjuxv3

The need this Christmas

"The need is greater this year than I’ve ever seen it. One little girl didn’t want anything for herself. She wanted a winter coat for her mother."

- "Head Elf" Pete Fontana at New York City’s main post office, who leads a staff of 22 people in sorting 2 million letters in Operation Santa, which connects needy children with "Secret Santas" who answer their wishes. (Source: USA Today)

The city as idea incubator

Steven Johnson on why New York has become a growing hub for technology startup companies.

As a diverse city that supports countless industries and maverick interests, New York excels at creating those eclectic networks. Subcultures and small businesses generate ideas and skills that inevitably diffuse through society, influencing other groups. As the sociologist Claude Fischer put it in an influential essay on subcultures published in 1975, "The larger the town, the more likely it is to contain, in meaningful numbers and unity, drug addicts, radicals, intellectuals, ‘swingers’, health-food faddists, or whatever; and the more likely they are to influence (as well as offend) the conventional center of the society."

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