Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Dissolving Border Vacuums, Part 5

CONGREGATIONAL BORDER VACUUMS
In previous posts we examined the border vacuums around transportation corridors, so now let's look at the border vacuums around institutional facilities and districts. We'll look at problematic congregational facilities first (convention centers, arenas, and sports facilities), and over the coming months we'll look at many other institutional border vacuums, like those around superblocks (“big footprint” developments and their parking garages), “radiant/garden city” complexes (housing projects, strip malls, and office and government parks), campuses (universities and hospitals), and recreational areas (parks and cemeteries).

Even vital urban institutions can unintentionally deaden their surroundings.
THE PROBLEM WITH SPECIAL-USE DISTRICTS
Of course, the purpose of this analysis is not to criticize the institutions themselves (which are vital urban amenities), but to examine solutions for their (often unintentional) border vacuums. Actually, an “institutional” border vacuum can form around any programming that tends toward a single use over a large area: the history of postwar development shows us that even activities that were once seamlessly integrated into ordinary neighborhoods – like shopping districts – were unnecessarily turned into border vacuums.

Jane Jacobs argued that the sorting of urban activities into specialized districts prone to border vacuum formation (what we now know as single-use zoning) began with the City Beautiful concept of the civic center: “City after city built its civic center or its cultural center. The monuments [and civic institutions] were sorted out from the rest of the city and assembled in a separate and well-defined way. The idea of sorting out certain cultural or public functions and decontaminating their relationship with the workaday city dovetailed nicely with Garden City teachings. The conceptions have merged into a sort of Radiant Garden City Beautiful. The entire concoction is irrelevant to the workings of cities (24-25).”

Jacobs went on to reveal just how these civic centers created border vacuums: “The centers were not a success. For one thing, the ordinary city around them invariably ran down instead of being uplifted, and they always acquired an incongruous rim of ratty tattoo parlors and secondhand clothing stores, or else just nondescript, dispirited decay. For another, people stayed away from them to a remarkable degree (25).” This running-down phenomenon doesn't just afflict monumental civic centers, of course – it seems to be common along most institutional districts! Perhaps the most notorious example in Baltimore is the dead zone surrounding Johns Hopkins Hospital (see above).

Why ghettoize institutions in special-use districts...
The “Radiant Garden City Beautiful” disdain for the workaday city was a  reaction to hypertrophic industrialization and its degradation of the urban fabric, but unfortunately this reaction spawned our lingering fixation with sorting and separating various urban functions. Unlike many older cities abroad, where civic institutions are often sprinkled among and crammed into ordinary mixed-use neighborhoods, here in the US we tended to reinforce the notion of the “sacred” monumental city as something separate from the “profane” workaday city: on pages 172-174, Jacobs, quoting Elbert Peets, expressed frustration over the gradual but intentional transformation of Washington D.C.'s core into a single-use monumental/governmental district, a strategy quite contrary to L'Enfant's original vision.

Even today we still tend to unnecessarily form single-use districts and push specialized functions into them: why are museums and theaters still consigned to “arts districts,” bars and clubs sifted into “entertainment districts,” and labs and research centers relegated to “tech parks,” for example?

...when they could be useful neighborhood anchors and landmarks?
Although we've realized that imposing single-use zoning on cities was a mistake, I don't think we've fully realized that special-use districts need not be imposed on cities either: most of the institutional buildings that make them up can be distributed in and among ordinary mixed-use neighborhoods. This doesn't mean that institutional buildings can't be focal points – in fact, in Chapter 19 Jacobs argues that institutional buildings can serve as focal points, terminating vistas, and landmarks precisely when they're situated in the ordinary urban fabric! (Philly's City Hall is a great example.) Confining these institutional buildings to special-use districts like civic centers only robs cities of the opportunity to use them as orienting focal points and landmarks throughout and across their urban fabrics.

Of course, it's easy to argue against the creation of new special-use, single-use, institutional districts, but many such districts already exist in Baltimore and elsewhere, so how can we fix their border vacuums? We'll examine solutions for different kinds of institutional facilities and districts in upcoming posts; this first post will only focus on convention centers, arenas, and sports facilities:

CONVENTION CENTERS, ARENAS, AND SPORTS FACILITIES
Baltimore actually deserves considerable credit for building its convention center, arena, and baseball and football stadiums downtown at a time when many other cities were confining them to special-use districts or pushing them to the fringes. Camden Yards, for example, was so successful it revived a nationwide trend of building enclosed downtown ballparks.

Even as early as the mid-1950s with the planning of the 1st Mariner Arena, Baltimore was already making an effort to locate new civic institutions downtown, an effort that did not go unnoticed by Jacobs: “Baltimore, after playing around for years with this plan and that for an abstracted and isolated civic center, has decided instead to build downtown, where these facilities can count most as primary uses and landmarks (404).”

The convention center offers a looooong blank wall to the street!
But while the Convention Center, 1st Mariner Arena, Camden Yards, and M&T Bank Stadium are all venerable, well-located institutions, their integration into the surrounding urban fabric is rather clunky. The convention center is perhaps the worst example: it occupies a vast superblock that offers an endless blank wall to the sidewalks. This superblock is boxed in by unpleasant arterials (Pratt, Charles, Conway, and Howard Streets) and a surrounding ring of hotel and office superblocks, several of which have pedestrian-draining skywalks to the convention center. Similar problems afflict the 1st Mariner Arena. The area suffers from a dizzying, overlapping array of border vacuums!

The locational and spatial requirements of convention centers, arenas, and stadiums pose quite a dilemma: these facilities work best when located downtown and they need large open spaces to accommodate conventions, concerts, and sporting events, but this is fundamentally at odds with the need for small urban blocks. It seems the best solution to the dilemma is to raise the facility above the street grid and to fill the space underneath it with retail-lined cross streets. (This, of course, also requires a residential context!) This was the happy outcome of the decision to convert the Reading Terminal train shed in Philly into a convention center – part of the facility is thus discreetly elevated above a wonderful public market.

Baltimore is already aware of the shortcomings of the current convention center and arena, but unfortunately the proposal to replace them with a combined convention center/arena/hotel complex is, if anything, even worse. To me the idea is reminiscent of John Portman's “big footprint” developments of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, many of which devolved into self-contained, insular, fortresslike, “city within a city” complexes that turned their backs on their host cities. In other words, these are precisely the kinds of special-use facilities/districts that form border vacuums! (In this case a convention goer would never have to leave the megafacility's hotel/convention/entertainment bubble.) There are many other legitimate concerns too:

Firstly, the convention industry is shrinking, so pouring public funds into a new facility for a contracting industry might be a mistake. Why would you add more convention space if the existing space is already underutilized?

Secondly, although the proposal intends to greet the street with a retail liner, this liner will likely struggle because the site currently lacks the appropriate context to support it. Retail liners require an adjacent context of dense residential blocks, but often they're dropped into the middle of nowhere, so they sit vacant! Urban retail also requires small blocks – it'll probably struggle if it's forced to mask the long, unbroken walls of a superblock. Furthermore, if the streets slated to accommodate the retail liners are unpleasant traffic sewers, then the retail will continue to struggle. So retail liners can't be airlifted in and expected to work miracles – they require an intricate, complex context to work properly, and the discussion on providing that context is often absent, as seems to be the case with this proposal.

It might make more sense to improve the existing convention center by (1) punching retail niches and cross streets through the complex's blank walls to reduce the amount of underutilized floorspace, (2) downsizing the arterials around the complex into normal streets that could accommodate the retail, and (3) breaking up the surrounding superblocks and infilling them with smaller residential blocks that would support the retail. (A small example of this strategy is the incipient project to replace the Mechanic Theater with a mixed-use apartment building, though I think the remainder of the Hopkins Plaza superblock still needs to be broken up.) Several decades from now it might even be possible to progressively dismantle portions of the convention center as the industry continues to shrink and the facility reaches the end of its “design life.” The reclaimed space could then be infilled with mixed-use blocks.

The far more modest conventions of the future could either return to the Fifth Regiment Armory, or if the city insisted on a new facility, it could take a leaf out of Philly's book and solve the dilemma of accommodating a blank-walled mega-space in an urban setting once and for all by building a modest convention center atop the Lexington Market buildings, and perhaps adapting the Hutzler's complex as the facility's grand entrance (akin to Philly's Reading Terminal Headhouse). So rather than relegating hotel, arena, and convention programming to a single self-contained basket, such a facility would essentially require visitors to patronize discrete shops, entertainment venues, and hotels throughout the downtown, and it might even breathe new life into a market (and a west side) that has grown increasingly seedy over the years.

A similar strategy might work for the 1st Mariner Arena: the existing arena could be refurbished and raised above a street-level layer of mixed-use programming as long as (1) the repellent arterials around the arena were downsized, (2) cross streets were introduced underneath it, and (3) the surrounding superblocks were broken up and infilled with fine-grained residential blocks. (A residential building could even be built in the airspace above the arena.) There also is the possibility of moving the arena to the ballpark area and enclosing it (along with Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium) with mixed-use infill. The ballpark area might then evolve into a normal neighborhood that seamlessly connected to existing surrounding neighborhoods.

Unfortunately an opportunity to try just such a strategy on a modest, tentative scale was recently squandered: rather than using dubious financing schemes to build a superfluous blank-walled hotel superblock, the site could have been infilled with mixed-use residential blocks.

Some institutional border vacuums are the result of unnecessary stuntery.
Finally, what about smaller congregational facilities, like operas, theaters, and museums? If they're distributed across the urban fabric (i.e. not clustered in special-use districts), these smaller facilities generally don't form border vacuums on the scale of those around the larger facilities discussed earlier. It's possible to rely on architectural richness to overcome their blank walls, or you can integrate shops right into their street frontages (which the Mechanic actually did, though I think the lack of adjacent residential buildings and the dreary setbacks gradually undermined them). Unfortunately, while it's relatively easy to avoid creating border vacuums around smaller congregational facilities, many such contemporary facilities – particularly those of the “starchitectural” variety – still unnecessarily fall into the blank-walled desolation trap!

Next time we'll examine solutions for more superblock borders (like “big footprint” commercial developments and their accompanying parking garages), so stay tuned!

- Marc Szarkowski

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