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Archive for May, 2012

Dewey Files Bankruptcy

No surprise here. Just the latest headline from the toxic culture of law.

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The Independent has a piece about recent efforts to revise the DC building height limit of 130 feet (39.6 m). As Washington grows, its century-old height limit becomes a natural experiment in massing regulations and their impact on metropolitan land markets. After providing a brief history of the (aesthetics-driven) massing regulation, the author, Rupert Cornwell, notes:

[T]he price of a European feel is not only to be measured in commuter misery. The ban on tall buildings curbs the supply of space when demand is soaring; the result, naturally, is higher prices, across the board. DC has a chronic hotel shortage, while the cost of office space has hit Manhattan levels, and Washington’s [poor] residents find it ever tougher to make ends meet as . . . gentrification pushes rents remorselessly higher. The city, meanwhile, loses much potential tax revenue.

Washington is an unusually beautiful American city, in the sense that it actually has a classically-proportioned plan. And part of its proportioning lies in the scale of its buildings, which complement the city’s layout. L’Enfant’s 1791 plan predated tall buildings by a century, and in that sense it was silent about building heights. But it was also the blueprint for an airy city of wide boulevards, open spaces, and preeminent public buildings. The 130-foot building limit, imposed in 1899, has been consistent with the original blueprint and its Enlightenment-era political symbolism for America’s capital.

It would be a shame to see L’Enfant’s aesthetic suddenly disrupted; it would also be a loss to market-driven planning innovation to end the city’s role as one of the last American places where old-fashioned land-use efficiency (including the use of courtyards and alleys) is a serious consideration for individual projects. But there are certainly both practical and equitable arguments for relaxing the current height limits. Washington’s recent experience illustrates, starkly (I think), the costs of strictly regulating the massing of buildings in growing real estate markets. Even in cities without such purposive policies, the aggregation of land use regulations is presumably having similar impacts.

L’Enfant’s plan for Washington, DC.

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I’ve been working on a project for a research center in New Brunswick over the last few months. The legwork has involved conducting interviews with officials at Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) and state DOTs to document their experiences with TELUS, a database-management platform that’s employed for logistical and compliance purposes. Agencies use the software to assemble their federally-mandated Transportation Improvement Plans (TIPs), track their infrastructure spending, classify and prioritize individual projects, and share project data. A web-based version helps officials comply with SAFETEA-LU requirements for public transparency; a land-use projection model works in tandem with TELUS to allow agencies to predict future traffic and land use patterns, as well as employment and population growth.

From what we’ve learned, TELUS seems to have been a big help for state and local transportation agencies. Instead of copying information back and forth between e-mail accounts, Access databases, and Excel sheets (as had been the practice), those that adopted TELUS now have a global framework for managing their project data and making it available. One problem that dogs all of the software in this niche is a lack of standardization among competing platforms. A number of state and local agencies have developed their own programs to carry out the same tasks that TELUS handles. The programs all seem to have been developed separately, with little regard for compatibility with others. In some cases agencies require their subordinate partners to submit data in their proprietary formats, making the adoption of an outside framework complicated. There’s a period of this that occurs in every wave of development– whether it’s rail gauges, or radio frequencies, or operating systems. Individual participants can waste a lot of effort and money by picking the wrong horse. It’s interesting (as an observer).

At the end of the research, two observations (personal, not directly related to TELUS) stand out. The first is the enormous role that the federal government plays in local infrastructure projects, especially in conservative, rural parts of the country. The second is the lopsided preference that federal funding gives to highway infrastructure, as opposed to passenger rail, freight rail, bicycle/pedestrian provisions, and ferry/shipping services. It’s almost a cliché that mass-transit is an insolvent business model, and one that requires massive public investments, while cars and trucks remain ubiquitous symbols of potent American individualism. Imagine how that picture would change if, instead of the highway system, the feds maintained all of the rail infrastructure, and allowed private companies to use it, for profit, at little or no fee? If the highways were all maintained by private entities who had to raise revenues through tolls, or forgo their maintenance?

I’ll post a link to our report when it’s published.

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The article begins, “If I could return to just one moment in New York’s story, I would go back to the Roaring Twenties. . . .” Me too.

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What it says: “This map of Aranda del Duero is the oldest perspective map drawn in Spain in 1508. The original was made on skin and is preserved at the General Archive of Simancas. Was used as an inspiration for planning the cities of the New World, just discovered. It was presented to Queen Isabella of Castille to document the city limits where underground wineries were already producing and aging the wines from Ribera del Duero.” Note the plaza/forum, the cardo, the decumanus: it’s basically a perfect Roman frontier city. Great wine, too. Thanks, Jim!

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Patrick Geddes and Tel Aviv

White City, Tel Aviv. Photo: Google.

Esra Magazine has a nice piece about Sir Patrick G., and his role in planning the Israeli seaside city. Geddes had a special impact on what would become known as the White City– a coastal neighborhood with one of the world’s largest concentrations of ultramodern Bauhaus-style architecture. The combination of white concrete, modern lines, green desert brush, wide boulevards, and the blue Mediterranean make the White City a striking conceptual project in town planning. Sadly, a look around the newly released Google Streetviews of Tel Aviv shows that many of the structures in the neighborhood have not been well maintained over the years; worse, many parcels are occupied by ugly buildings that fail to realize the vision’s potential.

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London Subterranea

Londonist has some details of a novel map by Stephen Walter: an intense look at the secrets that lie buried, physically and historically, under the streets.

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