Dreams of the Agora, Nightmares of a Mall: Critical Impressions of the World Trade Center Transit Hub

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View of the WTC Transit Hub
The World Trade Center Transit Hub—New York's new, $4.5 billion transit terminal—clearly has grand ambitions. It isn't merely self-consciously monumental; it also sets out to be a transformative public space—one that will bring the spark of urban life to a neighborhood that so desperately needs it. Crafting a deeply functional public space, however, is a difficult task even in the best of times, and building a node for urban life—an agora for the modern city—is a taller task, still. Can the Hub actually fulfill its architect’s grandiose promises and craft a truly urban environment from scratch?

A critical examination of the station reveals a space that is maddeningly ambivalent. On the one hand, it is a place that consciously echoes the designs of other successful, urban stations—a space which not only possesses an awe-inspiring center, but which could act as an urban refuge from the commodified, tourist-centric memorial above. On the other hand, however, it is also a complex riddled with troublesome decisions, led by problematic management, and plagued by unanswered questions—a space not only dominated by omnipresent security, but seemingly on the fast track towards becoming a shopping mall in the guise of a privatized "public" space. In other words, the Transit Hub has a lot of potential. It also has the potential to be a monumental disaster.

The Stage

It was only with a great deal of trepidation that I made my way to lower Manhattan to visit the newly opened World Trade Center Transit Hub—the $4.5 billion station that now serves as the southern Manhattan terminus for PATH trains. Some of my reticence undoubtedly stemmed from the cloud of negative buzz that currently envelopes the project. After all, the station is already arguably more famous for its slipped schedules, ballooned budgets, and astronomical price tag than it is for any of its own architectural or urban merits. That makes it a challenging space to analyze without preconception, particularly for those of us in the New York region. At the same time, for better or for worse, the Transit Hub will be one of the largest single investments in public space infrastructure that New York City will see for some time. It will also undoubtedly be one of the most expensive.

And yet, for all of that, I knew that my trepidation was actually rooted in something far deeper than the structure itself, or the controversies surrounding it. It stemmed instead from the proverbial elephant in the room: to engage with the Transit Hub, one must confront the reality of its location.

Upcoming Excerpts & Thoughts: Port Authority Bus Terminal

 

Contrary to popular belief, yes, writing continues! Hopefully this piece will be finished soon. For now, please enjoy another excerpt, this time on the Port Authority Bus Terminal:

To the Port Authority's credit, it commissioned and largely implemented a plan that has made the [Port Authority Bus] Terminal much safer. This included some of the first explicit uses of holistic, urban-conscious design to create deliberately defensive architecture. Sightlines, for example, were opened, blind corners reduced or eliminated, and strong attempts were made to ensure all open areas of the Terminal were busy at all times—all in order to simulate a Jacobsian "eyes on the street"-like effect.

 But all of these improvements were a means to a very limited end: making the Terminal safer and more efficient for travelers passing through. Almost no attempt was made to placemake, to transform this highly valuable piece of public property into a public space.
-Upcoming excerpt

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Upcoming Excerpts & Thoughts: Malls, Urbanity

 

You know, writing is a long, slow process—certainly not one that suits social media. But fear not, dear reader: progress is being made, and my latest, quite large article is coming soon! Keep your eyes peeled! Until then, here is a brief excerpt to tide you over:

Unfortunately, achieving such a street-like atmosphere has been the unrealized dream of almost every shopping mall since Victor Gruen conceived of the concept. Almost all such malls, alas, instead turn out to be mere simulacra of streets: built to the human scale and for human perception and physical needs, but without any of the other factors that drive urban life, ultimately ending up as sterile homages to bland consumerism.
-Said upcoming article

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Upcoming Excerpts & Thoughts: Capacity to Create Public Space

 

In short, none of the primary actors involved in the Transit Hub have shown much capacity for creating or nurturing spaces that have any greater functionality or social import than a shopping mall, or that are any more welcoming than an airport security line.
-Upcoming Article

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Guess the actors involved ;-). In all seriousness, work continues, and hopefully this article should be ready for you soon!

Upcoming Excerpts & Thoughts: Calatrava

 

Just a quick update to show work continues. I had to work hard to pick an excerpt that was fun, but not too juicy; I have to save some surprise for the final article! Stay tuned, it should be coming soon!

If it is to succeed as a public space, this [the World Trade Center memorial] is the environment that Santiago Calatrava's Transit Hub—and though I am usually aghast at the lone-artist persona falsely ascribed to architects, there can be no doubt that this project carries his name with a little ™ at the end—must overcome.

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Upcoming Excerpts & Thoughts: Rent Control

 

Of course, for many of us, just the mention of rent control is usually enough to either make emotions flare, or worse, make resigned heads shake, a gut reaction screaming out, "Oh no, not this discussion again..."

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Brief Thoughts On: New York City's Proposed, Urban-Focused Streetcar

Author's Note: This is the first of a new type of article on The Fox and the City, a "Brief Thoughts On..." piece. These articles are meant to be shorter, less polished, and perhaps a bit less considered than the usual fare here. Hopefully however, the shorter length will allow for more articles on timely issues as well as for more freedom to explore esoteric ideas. Whether this turns into more articles or not is an open question, as these have a habit of evolving into larger pieces. But enough with behind the curtain ramblings...
The Portland Streetcar at the OHSU Station The Portland Streetcar at Ohio State Health University1.

For those of you who haven't heard, last week, in his State of the City address, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio officially threw his weight behind a proposal to build a streetcar line along the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront2. With a planned length of around 16 miles, and an estimated cost of two and a half billion dollars, this (at least partially) mixed-traffic streetcar would be New York's first major investment in crosstown travel since the Independent Subway's Crosstown Line (today's G train) was constructed in the early 1930s.

To be honest, my initial reaction to this proposal, like that of many initial reactions I've seen, was quite skeptical. Rumors have been circulating about a waterfront streetcar project in Brooklyn since at least the early 2000s, coming to a head with the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association's oft-maligned plan to connect downtown Brooklyn and Red Hook3. At the same time, real estate developers and parts of the city's government have been pushing hard for large-scale residential redevelopment along Brooklyn's East River and harbor-facing coasts. Given New York's transit needs, it is tempting to write this project off as frivolous at best, and cargo-cult thinking at worst—that is, other cities have successfully built streetcars which have supported residential development, so we should as well. But the longer I've studied the proposal and ruminated on its merits and its meaning, the more and more I've warmed to it, and indeed, the more and more I've come to support it.

Upcoming Excerpts & Thoughts: Early Planners

 

Even if [early city planners'] grand plans could have predicted the perfect number and placement of every type of facility—already a stretch—simply gluing the basic components of a city together does not guaranty the creation of successful, living, or productive place.
-Excerpt from an Upcoming Article

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For those of you who don't follow The Fox and the City's Twitter or Facebook, this will be a new feature: occasional thoughts and excerpts, usually from upcoming articles! Something to let you know what I've been working on, as well as to provide a (hopefully!) interesting stream of bite-size, thought provoking ideas. Also, since these long-form articles take a significant amount of time to write, they will give you more of the The Fox and the City goodness that I'm sure you need and want in your life. If you want these delivered right to your inbox, follow the site on Twitter, like it on Facebook, or subscribe via RSS! The email list will still be reserved for major articles; I don't want to spam your inbox! Enjoy!

End of Year Update: Emails and an Excerpt

Just a quick two things before this year is out (assuming it is not already out where you live):

First, not a social media person? Don't worry, I'm not either (as my presence, or lack thereof on it might show). Due to reader demand, it is now possible to receive an email every time The Fox and the City updates! It's like 1999 all over again!

If you would care to subscribe, just click here and enter your email address. I hate spam, too: this list will only be used for updates, and will never be sold.

Second, while it's only a brief sentence, I wanted to share something from the article I am currently writing with you. This quote is way too long for twitter, so you know it's good. As you may guess, writing these long-form pieces takes time, and I apologize for not having it finished yet. However, I look forward to sharing the whole piece with you in a few short weeks—another reason you may want to sign up for those email updates. Anyway, without further ado:

Now, what motivates this specific breed of American tourism—people traveling to different cities only to then seek out plastic facsimiles of the very place they are in, full of the exact same shops and restaurants that they could find at home—is not merely alien to my New York sensibilities, but could almost certainly fill a tome all its own.

Happy New Year!

Stolzenbach, Jacobs, JFK, and the (Re)Emergence of American Urbanity

Cover of The Washington Metro and the Fall and Rise of American Urbanity
The following is an excerpt from the Master's thesis, The Washington Metro and the Fall and Rise of American Urbanity, presented and © 2014. It is part of Chapter 4: Stolzenbach, Jacobs, JFK, and the (Re)Emergence of American Urbanity. Enjoy!
 
No urban critic was more effective than Jane Jacobs. Her book ... became an immediate bestseller. ... Jacob's manifesto found a sympathetic audience in many urban residents at a key time in American history.
-Frederick Gutheim, official historian of the National Capital Planning Commission. [1]

Rosalyn Deutsche, an art historian, critic, and urbanist, has written at length on the problematic nature of public art and public space. All too often, in Deutsche's opinion, art and space are neutered of their individual discursive qualities by existing power structures, a desire to serve the lowest common denominator, or both. For her, if space, art, or to extend her work to the case in hand, infrastructure, is to be truly democratic, truly public, it must embody ongoing contestation. Unlike Habermas, Deutsche has no preconceptions of a singular popular opinion that can be reached through rational dialogue. The ideas at hand are too powerful, the splits in opinion too great, and the balance of power too unequal for that ever to be the case. To this point, the story of Metro has encompassed a few contestations: Should transportation planning work to (re)concentrate urban life, or should it push towards dispersal? Is the automobile the way of the future, or does rail still have a role to play? What is the role of the 'expert' vis-à-vis the role of the public at large? What is the role of the government? These issues were highly contested by planners, politicians, and academics. But in becoming reality, they would by necessity affect far more than the select few in positions of relative power[2].

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