Category Archives: New York

Cuomo’s State of the State: Platitudes and Pragmatism

If you’re unfamiliar with the tangled mass of hair in a drain pipe that is New York State and New York City’s infrastructure funding mechanisms let me start you off by explaining that almost anything you use to get to work in the morning that is stamped with an italicized “MTA” is the property of the state of New York. Funds for subways, buses, and regional rail are all doled out by Albany which means the money can sometimes, um, find its way into projects that don’t have much to do with public transportation. It’s a delicate relationship, and maybe the only one where the State House has more leverage than Gracie Mansion.

Governor Cuomo’s State of the State address comes little more than a week after the swearing in of New York City’s 109th mayor, democrat Bill De Blasio. It’s the first time we received a public view of how their platitudinal visions for the region will mesh and, thankfully, Cuomo dedicated a not insignificant balance of his speech on infrastructure development. (The speech touched on transportation issues without getting wonky; if you want the fuller plan [and I recommend it] you can check out the SotS booklet.) He concentrated on two topics: the airports and the Bronx.

(Before we go on, yes, his decision to endorse the construction of an interstate highway connector in the great frozen north of the state smacks of pandering to people who are nutty enough to live near the Canadian border.  StreetsBlog covers it much better than I could hope to here.)

Cuomo’s espousal of an MTA plan to route New Haven line trains from Penn Station through the East Bronx while adding four new stations in under served communities in the process is a welcome start the year. The four locales that the MTA plans on adding stations to in the Bronx—Hunts Point, Parkchester, Morris Park, and Co-op City—don’t currently have transit access to Manhattan and adding the station stops could help spur some economic growth just by improving access to business districts on the island. Giving Metro-North trains a west side Manhattan terminus also means that commuters can potentially lop time off their morning and evening commutes and balance subway loads between the lateral sides of Manhattan.

homemap 11 2011 Cuomos State of the State: Platitudes and Pragmatism

(Oh, about those subways—well Cuomo didn’t offer up any plan to improve on the claustrophobic hellscape that is Penn Station during his speech. By shifting commuter loads from the east to the west side, you’re also putting pressure on an already dangerously overburdened Penn Station. Giving south bound commuters access to the different trains on their commutes is great but only if you can build out capacity in the stations, otherwise you’re just packing a lot more people into an already full [and shitty] sardine can.)

The plan isn’t transformative—the rush hour headways would be on par with the Q train I have to take in the morning, which is better than expected—but non-highway capital projects are getting rarer which means we need to stop holding our noses at pragmatism. Penn Station access is at least a little push back towards ambition.

Cuomo’s other transportation talking point hit a little closer to home. (And be warned: This is going to get a little Live Journal all of a sudden. Also this is a story about Newark which isn’t one of the airports Cuomo is talking about but whatever, this is Radials not the Times.) My girlfriend and I were on our way to Florida for a wedding last week and decided that we had enough time to hop NJTransit from Penn Station to Newark Liberty. Penn Station wasn’t as much of a terribly clusterfuck as I was used to and, even though the NJTransit train was packed to the point that I had to move out of the way whenever our conductor wanted to make a breathy, adenoidal announcement about station stops, we got to the Air Train station without much incident.

We come down the escalator into the waiting area for the Air Train (it’s a monorail, imagine something slightly shittier than Disney World’s) and it’s packed, probably a good 8 or 9 people deep. It’s never crowded. Newark is a very busy airport but the majority of customers would rather pay cab fare than the $20 you shell out for a train and Air Train ticket. It turns out one of the rails is broken—probably because it’s cold and monorails don’t work in the cold (?). Oh well, another perfectly good one is still going—though it’s moving kind of slowly and pulls into the station and some red-jacketed man is yelling “this train will not be returning to the terminal.”

ewr airtrain Cuomos State of the State: Platitudes and Pragmatism

Like Disney World, but much shittier.

For people who have never been to the Newark Airport Air Train station: there is no regular exit. Sure, you can trip the emergency doors and honestly no one really cares about them so that’s always an option but other than that there is no way to get out of the Newark Airport station without getting on another NJTransit train and getting off somewhere down the line. It is the most boring purgatory on earth.

So we wait, assuming the powers that be of Newark Liberty International Airport can’t possibly be dumb enough to 1) shut down the only transit link to their airport on a Friday evening at 6 PM and 2) not have any contingency plans like, oh, a fucking bus, to alleviate such a situation. Eventually, I get some valuable information from a young, also red-jacketed woman about a single bus that was coming to bring customers to the terminal. Naturally, being savvy ass holes, my girlfriend and I grab our stuff and wait by the only exit in the waiting area with the tacit understanding that if there is going to be a bus it is going to be outside of this door since the people designing this station were apparently close students of the Thermopylae school of architecture.

Needless to say we got on the bus while some 19 year old backpackers heading to France cried their eyes out because they were going to miss their hostel check in. Tough luck, kids.

The infrastructure connecting New York to its airports is godawful. There is no one seat ride to JFK and only a narrow band of the city has direct access to La Guardia via transit. I don’t agree with Gov. Cuomo’s assertion that somehow airport experience has a one to one relationship with tourism in New York City (people are going to come here no matter what) but there is a vast amount of ground to catch up on as far as logistics and convenience are concerned and Cuomo at least paid lip service to reestablishing both airports as main cargo hubs which means he’s also, hopefully, thinking of giving freight policy, an ugly but necessary sector of the economy, some much needed public light.

These are not sexy topics. It’s not a new subway system connecting currently hot neighborhoods or high speed rail that can get you from Grand Central to Syracuse in 20 minutes or, like, a fucking Hyperloop or something, but the improvements are, for lack of a better word, thoughtful. You don’t see balanced takes on wonkish topics from these sorts of speeches because politicians are too busy spouting platitudes about job creation and growth and pubic safety. Gov. Cuomo somehow found time to do both.

Among the Evangelicals: Conversions in Urban Planning

At 9:38 Thursday morning, a young woman dressed in a matching set of oversized collegiate sweats skulked out the deli on the corner of Fulton and South Oxford in Fort Greene, lowered her chin against the spitting rain, and ducked into her idling car parked ten feet away. The car was a compact sedan with a familiar pale marigold New Jersey license plate flanked by gently pulsating caution flashers. She had been grocery shopping, or as much grocery shopping as you can do in a Brooklyn corner deli, and threw her two full bags into the empty passenger seat. Her hazards stopped their electric metronome and she drove west on Fulton Street, the traffic crawling towards the borough’s most congested intersection.

Fulton Street runs the east-west length of Brooklyn, from the Queens frontier where it begins as modest 91st Avenue until it hits a kink in Brooklyn Heights and becomes Joralemon Street a few blocks before it empties in Brooklyn Bridge Park. You can’t get from one to the other without switching from the B25 bus to the J/Z subway on Alabama Avenue; the whole length is about seven miles end to end.

In 2004 the New York City Department of Transportation installed bus lanes on Fulton Street between South Oxford Street and Flatbush Avenue in order to facilitate faster travel times for the bus routes that operate in the corridor. Then-commissioner Iris Weinshall (wife of Senator Charles Schumer) prioritized traffic flow during her tenure and saw the installation of “peak direction” bus lanes as the most effective route to harmonizing movement on congested routes. The logic behind the more flexible iteration of bus routes doesn’t take a doctorate in transportation planning to understand: more people are going towards the city in the morning and away in the afternoon, so dedicated transit lanes should reflect those preferences. Travel times decreased by 12% along the affected corridors, leading to extensions past Flatbush avenue in 2010 and the creation of the Fulton Mall transit center. There may be gripes among drivers but transit ridership in the on the rise, and NYC DOT has completely rehabilitated its image from corrupt bureaucracy to administrative talisman. Polls show that most New Yorkers think the DOT is uncannily attuned to their needs, from bike lanes to safety programs. Transportation planning has become improbably trendy.

If I were writing a 5,000 word essay on the genesis of the modern bus lane and how it’s propelled transportation planning into an era of incremental pragmatism, that’s exactly how it would begin. But even with an audience of dedicated transit and planning enthusiasts I’m not sure how much the topic would actually stick. Invention is only interesting in its novelty or re-purposing, and painting a white line down a busy stretch of asphalt doesn’t satisfy either test. Surveying violations is only marginally more interesting, mostly because it gives you an idea of what drivers do when they think no one of consequence is watching.

It’s pretty fucking terrifying.

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The Two Lhotas

It looks like MTA Chief Joe Lhota has decided to heed the call of Republican Party bosses and toss his well-connected name into the New York Mayoral race. Lhota, who served as a Deputy Mayor under Rudy Giuliani, resigned his post as MTA chief a little more than 11 months after he was put there by Governor Cuomo making him the second MTA Chief to leave the position in three years after former Chairman Jay Walder bolted for Hong Kong in late-2011. Lhota’s riding a wave of post-Sandy laudations and is the only Republican with a considerable name recognition after the MTA handled Sandy exceptionally well. (Business owners have apparently been clamoring for him to campaign as well, but that’s a different story.) It looks like our mayoral race is pretty much set: Joe Lhota and Christine Quinn with Bill DeBlasio skulking somewhere in the background. And transit is screwed.

I actually liked Joe Lhota in his capacity as MTA Chairman—he seemed to take a lot of no nonsense cues from his predecessor and faced unbelievable challenges during the aftermath of Sandy and he deserves to reap the rewards of his success. But, then again, his tenure at MTA is a blip. 11 months makes Walder’s reign seem Caesarian in comparison and there’s plenty of merit to the argument that Lhota could enact more concentrated change through his time as MTA Chairman then a mayoral term. (We’re in an age where people are actually interested in how transportation systems work [no, it’s not just me you cynics, there are a lot of out in there included your cool neighbor Carlos] and how to make them better across socioeconomic stratums. If Lhota didn’t notice that the NYCDOT Commissioner got a damn profile in Esquire because of her progressive transportation policy and realize “Hey there’s a lot of great stuff to be done here and I don’t have to be mayor to do it” then I guess he’s a little more tone deaf than I thought.)

Fortunately, Lhota’s association with the Republican party comes at a time when New York City have moved the goal post considerably left of center on most social policy programs. While far from perfect, Mayor Bloomberg has moved the city forward on several fronts including his laudable efforts to claw back tax revenues from incomes generated in New York but collected in geographies with lighter tax burdens. He’s also been generally supportive of progressive transportation policy going so far as to introduce a congestion charge schematic that ultimately failed once upstate lawmakers got a look at it. Mayor Bloomberg has been less vocal with regards to bicycle policy, however, leaving that to the stellar team assembled at NYCDOT—his endorsement comes more from a mute neutrality, refusing to engage with the sensationalists at the Post and allowing pro-bike policy to grow outside of his direct purview.

That tack is why I’m especially worried about this crop of mayoral candidates. All of them would pass for titular Democrat in a majority of states—reading left-to-right: Quinn, DeBlasio, Lhota. However, they’ve all subscribed to similar forms of 20th century transportation thinking. DeBlasio made himself persona non grata in the cycling community by supporting an “incremental” approach to bike lane development and criticizing steps taken by Commissioner Sadik-Khan though he does have plenty of marks on the other side of the ledger; Speaker Quinn, in the minds of many transit advocates, sided with drivers after snubbing mention of public transportation in her “Transportation Plan”; Lhota is hardest to read as he’s served as Chairman of the country’s largest transit authority but is attempting to top the ticket for a party that is staunchly pro-highway. (It should be mentioned that Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer is also a mayoral candidate and, if we were choosing based on how much they would do for New York transportation, would probably be the strongest candidate.)

There’s one lost oddity about all this: New Yorkers overwhelmingly support more progressive transportation planning. They like the pedestrian plazas and bike lanes, hell, they even liked the congestion charge as long as the money was going towards improving transit. No candidate, outside of Stringer (who has, at best, an outside chance) and Lhota (who’s track record is shorter than a James Cameron marriage), has offered us a glimpse of how they would lead on transportation in New York and it’s sort of terrifying. Maybe StreetsBlog’s fear of us electing our own Rob Ford is well placed.

Redundant Resiliency in New York City Transit After Sandy

How many days did you have off after Hurricane Sandy? Did your boss give you a couple days off since there was no way to get to work outside of waiting a couple hours for a bus from Brooklyn to Midtown or was she a nice manager and ended up giving you an unexpected week of vacation? Or was she more like James Dolan and say that even though it’s nearly impossible for you to get to work, you’re still going to be docked a vacation day should you fail to show up. 

Anyway, even if you had an angel of a manager it was probably still a challenge to get to work if you toil anywhere below 34th Street. Some of you took those buses with the comically long lines. Some of you walked across the Williamsburg, Manhattan, and Brooklyn bridges like some sort of hipster diaspora. Some of you worked from home because you’re lucky jerks. But the winners in the post-Sandy transitocalypse took to the open seas of the East River, hopped on a ferry, and were able to head into the office three days after Sandy.

Obviously the ferry system in New York is sort of the forgotten cousin of the New York transit family, but most people forget that before the bridges went up the only way to get from Brooklyn to Manhattan was heading down to the coast and hopping on a ferry. (And yes, you can go look up Whitman’s “Brooklyn Ferry” now.) Now the ferry is sort of an u

 Redundant Resiliency in New York City Transit After Sandy

Instagram User Virginia Laird Snapped this Photo of the Absurd “Bus Bridge” Lines

nfortunate gimmick, viewed as a niche transit mode used mostly by Staten Islanders (and just for clarification, we’re talking about the East River Ferries rather than the extremely useful [and free] State Island ferry) and people who use Instagram entirely too much. In fact, the ferries that run from Brooklyn to Manhattan are operating on a ticking subsidy that is set to expire within a couple years. (Quick aside: the fact that the ferries came back so quickly after Hurricane Sandy proved invaluable as far as emergency preparedness goes. That alone should extend the subsidy indefinitely—but it probably won’t.)

 Redundant Resiliency in New York City Transit After Sandy

Have you ever heard some one on a bus or a subway (and this was especially popular in Boston) complain about buses and subways running the exact same route? If they’re smart they’ll use  ”redundancy”, if they’re not they’ll say “stupid”, because at the end of the day the words are interchangeable when it comes to transit apparently. Unfortunately, after Hurricane Sandy essentially took the MTA offline we saw that the false semantic equality manifest itself in masses of people struggling to make a trip that is almost instinctual. With transit, redundancy should be a goal only deferential to access. Redundancy has more in common with resiliency than waste, and it’s time the New York transit community embraced that equality.

The Need for Strong Federal Government During City Disasters

A friend of mine in London asked how things were in New York in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Where I live in Brooklyn there was nearly no damage: a few trees were felled by the wind, storefronts using Verizon had to start dealing in cash (though this being Brooklyn that wasn’t exactly a huge change), and there were a lot more families out in the daylight hours with most New York schools closed. The devastation in Hoboken, Long Island, Queens, and Coastal New Jersey is extensive. New York’s subway system is in dire straits with major lines still closed. Manhattan below 34th street has been dark since Monday.

At the end of my email I couldn’t help but talk about the relationship between the Federal and local governments at times like these.

At one point in my career I was paid to educate local and regional financial administrators on how they can best stretch their dollars in order to invest in infrastructure development. For non-Federal entities, innovative financing is the only way to get projects done most of the time. State and municipal governments are legally bound to balanced budgets, they are not allowed to spend money they don’t have unlike the Federal government that can run astronomical deficits without worrying about the specter of bankruptcy—though some pundits would have you think otherwise. Regional transportation and planning officials often have to go to the Federal government and apply for those dollars and, often, they’re wrapped in red tape and marked with arcane regulations on spending, management, and delivery. The Federal government is lumbering by design—if they screw up it’s taxpayer money they’ve bungled, so the process is deliberate and glacial.

With disasters like Sandy this can be a blessing and a curse. Local governments (no, not even the city-state of NYC has the coffers for independent emergency management) cannot afford to deploy every asset they have during one disastrous week. If Gov. Christie, who has been doing a spectacular job at managing a devastating natural disaster, hasn’t applied for Federal fund he would have had to choose where to put his limited resources. FEMA (and dear lord, has there ever been a Federal agency who has had a bigger reputation transformation than FEMA in the last week?) has become an essential part of the recovery landscape and, for those who would espouse the need for states to have the say in how their emergency assets are spent, does not dictate how the Federal funds are spentStates apply for the funds, FEMA gives it to them, and States use the funds where they think it is prudent.

Look, the governmental response to Hurricane Sandy hasn’t been perfect with citizens having to take charge in neighborhoods like Red Hook and the Lower East Side because of the overwhelming need for emergency services all over New York and New Jersey. But there is a serious cognitive disconnect when pundits talk about the need for stronger state’s rights during natural disasters like this. New York City and New Jersey (the most urbanized state in the country), a city with an Independent mayor and a state with a Republican governor, understand the need for a strong Federal government during harrowing events like Hurricane Sandy, let’s hope the reaction from FEMA and the entire Obama administration makes that crystal clear.

Joe Lhota’s Smart Pragmatism at the MTA

MTA Chairman Joe Lhota’s interview on this morning Brian Lehrer show (listen here) wasn’t exactly earth shattering: he talked about the potential fare hike scenarios, expressed his desire to make the MTA into the best transit system in the world (again), and offered some vague visions of the future. These interviews don’t really rise above local politics, though you’d be forgiven if you considered New York City transit policy a regional issue with national implications. Mr. Lhota was speaking to the daily riders who are worried about rising fare costs while simultaneously trying to convince them that the MTA is still one of the most effective transit systems in the world, not to mention one of the cheapest in the post-industrial world.

But then Joe threw some in this corner of the blogosphere a pretty significant bone: he talked about lengthening stations as an alternative to significant capital programs! And modernizing signal structures!

I’ll be honest that I’m not sure how lengthening stations improves service (I’m assuming Second Ave. Sagas or Cap’n Transit probably has a better idea than I do) but the fact that Mr. Lhota offered up something that is not only pragmatic but also achievable in such a hostile funding climate was sort of revelatory. Listen, everyone wants more service and better service and cheaper service, but at the end of the day that just isn’t a reality. Yes, Albany has stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from dedicated MTA coffers, and yes, City Hall hasn’t increased transit funding since the first Clinton administration, but unfortunately there is no financial capacity to do anything additive outside of the Second Ave. subway.

Modernizing the MTA with incremental improvements like fixing the signaling structure (which would make trains come more frequently for all you rabble rousers out there) is a great step in the right direction and shows that Joe Lhota understand his constraints and is able to work within them with elegance and nuance. We’re all upset about the fare hike but I’m ok with an extra quarter going towards real improvements in the system.

Now if only Albany would stop messing everything else up for transit riders we could actually get somewhere.

An Argument for Privatizing Transit from a Very Liberal Blogger

Access is important here at Radials. We’ve argued that lack of transit options in major metropolitan areas is a major contributing factor to urban poverty and plays a role in the uneven distribution of economic opportunities between neighborhoods in cities. We’ve talked about the differences between bus rapid transit, light rail, and heavy rail and what it means for the affected constituents. Hell, we’ve even talked about why Americans are so much better at basketball than everyone else and a big part of it has to do with access to training infrastructure. Give a community access to something positive and they’ll always benefit—you could say that’s Radials’ shorthand mantra when it comes to urban policy.

The first topic—transit access—isn’t given enough page space here though, so I’d like to offer an opinion that doesn’t really jive with my overall political philosophy (the good folks over at Market Urbanism are already typing “I told you so”): transit is probably best managed by private industry.

Before everyone lets the nightmare of a Mitt Romney-run subway system run away with them, let me explain what a private transit system would not consist of:

  • Profit

That’s pretty much it. Unless you’re Hong Kong and somehow have made a buck off transporting millions of people for $0.30 a ride you’re most likely providing transit at a loss—and for most major American markets the operational deficits can reach anywhere from 50% to 70%. (Reading about MTR Corporation Limited, the publically traded company that runs HK’s metro system and is also 74% owned by the government of HK is absolutely fascinating so if you have a minute, check out the Wikipedia page.) American transit operators are also heavily subsidized by the FTA and state entities, though many would argue correctly that the amounts distributed by the Federal government and more highway oriented SDOTs have unfairly skewed funding mechanisms towards rural transportation development, thus shoving transit systems into further debt valleys than is proportional plus no one has actually included the social impacts of driving on the country at large in the gasoline tax which means we have an artificially depressed coffer, but anyway. The transportation economist John F. Kain (UT-Austin) argues convincingly that those subsidies are actually better used to pay private operators to do what the MTA, MBTA, LACTA, etc. do currently at a heavy cost to taxpayers: provide transit.

This isn’t unheard of. Traditionally, when a government needs to build a bridge they’ll put a contract out for something called “Design-Bid-Build” which means exactly what it says: a private entity will design the bridge, bid on the contract, and build the bridge. Often they’ll add another stipulation to the contract: Operate. (There are a bunch of other combinations, such as including “Own” which means that the entity quite literally owns the piece of infrastructure.) When you get an operate stipulation in your contract as a private corporation you are entitled to toll revenues in exchange for providing maintenance and upkeep on the bridge (these are called “concession contracts”), all of which is outlined in stacks and stacks of paperwork that, if you work in any city administration office, is the bane of your existence.

This isn’t the only example: Chicago infamously privatized the Skyway; the toll roads near my family home in Orange County are all private operated; bus systems that serve the Orthodox Jewish communities in New York City are contracted out to private transportation operators. Privatization can be a scary prospect for public services, though, and the introduction of any program would need to be ironclad in its dedication to serving wide swaths of communities—the lack of profits would be filled by subsidies at lower levels than states and cities’ are currently distributing because of efficiency gains in switching from a publically operated system to a private one.

I’ll admit that there’s something unnerving for me in writing about the merits of privatizing municipal services. Orange County’s attempt to essentially privatize city government backfired famously, the aforementioned privatization of the Chicago Skyway is not necessarily popular nor effective, and transit privatization has only been applied in smaller communities save for Denver’s bus system which is 50% contracted out. It’s by no stretch of imagination a new concept—people have been clamoring for this brand of privatization for decades and there’s a renewed interest from larger cities (London is the best good example) in at least dipping their toes into transit privatization. In a climate of municipal austerity maybe it’s time to jump in with both feet.


Mario Botta and the Lost Exceptionalism of Architecture

I don’t typically find myself writing about architecture anymore: its artistic impacts are above my pay grade, its history was never covered in my curriculum extra or otherwise, and I have carved out a tiny niche in the world of urbanism blogging with Radials. (If I needed to vent “artistically” [and I use that word lightly, can’t you tell by the quotes?] I would write something for Unknown Concrete, but when I realized that managing two blogs by myself was going to be a bit more challenging that expected I let the registration lapse.) I enjoy reading Paul Goldberger immensely (kudos to him for winning the Vincent Scully prize for architectural criticism recently) and Michael Sorkin and Mark Shepard are the kind of iconoclastic writers and editors we need in an increasingly mundane urban ferment—it seems like the more purely academic we have in urbanism the more stale the ideas become.

I also don’t write about architecture because it’s sort of depressing. Even really beautiful projects like the Barclays Center are marred by the addition of a dozen residential towers that look like they were gleaned from Le Corbusier’s notebooks, the sort of vertical living arrangements he would have built if the relevant design aesthetic had shifted from brick to steel and glass. (Aside: I know that readers are probably turned off by my admiration for the Vishaan Chakrabarti/SHoP designed stadium mostly because of its association with Forest City Ratner and their opaque dealings with the City administration, but I’m talking solely about the aesthetic qualities of the stadium and I think it’s a beautiful, if dangerously contemporary, piece of work.) The context of modern architecture is tipped towards the ordinary where developers want the cheapest, quickest, and plainest way to make a dollar off urban land that is getting exponentially more expensive every time I look for an apartment. On the high end, architectural quirks can turn off buyers who simply want an apartment that impresses on the inside while people in lower tax brackets—well actually the shortage of low and middle income housing in major cities and especially New York mean that there isn’t much room for scrutiny when it comes to dwellings. Either way, when it comes to urban buildings we end up with safely experimental pieces from starchitects like Frank Gehry and I.M. Pei where a flourishing twirl of titanium is simply an autograph on an otherwise plain façade letting developers sell apartments for twice or three times what they’re actually worth.

 Mario Botta and the Lost Exceptionalism of Architecture

Photo Urs Homberger

Then I stumbled upon this decade old Swiss wellness center (Bergoase) designed by the Swiss architect Mario Botta. (Alright, so my girlfriend actually stumbled upon it and passed it along to me—it’s always full disclosure here at Radials!). Botta—a disciple of Le Corbusier who thankfully took his cues from the bespectacled icon’s work in architecture and not urban theory—isn’t exactly a household name and has only a few buildings located outside of Switzerland including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (not the most interesting building I’ve seen) and the Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul. His most famous building is probably the Church of San Giovanni Battista in Mogno, Switzerland and the similarities between this stark turret of a church and the Bergoase are undeniable, especially when you view the church from profile.

The shaved cylinder in Mogno loses its sharp edging on the move north into the Alps but in calming the sides Botta has achieved something otherworldly and organic simultaneously—the quarter-and-half domes sticking out of the Bergoase look like halved tangerines or almonds from another planet. The embrace of those quasi-natural shapes is a departure from his tutelage under Le Corbusier that doesn’t quite have the escape velocity needed to completely ditch the International Style that made his idol famous, but it does represent an interesting dichotomy for an architect like Botta. Viewed from above, the Bergoase is rigid and mechanical, concepts that dominated Le Corbusier’s architectural vernacular and trickled down to his pupils, but the dorsal qualities of Bergoase in profile are closer in style to contemporary buildings Norman Foster and Bjarke Ingels, architecture’s current wunderkind and 32 years Botta’s junior. (The interior of Bergoase is a vogue juxtaposition of sharp steel and glass and undulating stone, the modern and ancient side by side.)

 Mario Botta and the Lost Exceptionalism of Architecture

Photo Enrico Cano

Designing striking buildings in the Alps is an exercise in unrestrained architecture however, and in urban landscapes we are often bound by zoning, space, and developer vision. Botta could be unleashed on his project rather than chained by it, a concept that monumental projects like the Freedom Tower and West 57 (to say nothing of the absolutely repulsive design for the rest of Atlantic Yards) could glean more than a little. Architecture is getting more and more stale in this city even as the real estate prices continue to rocket upwards—you figure one or two of these developers could afford a risk or two when clients will gladly pay millions of dollars simply for the privilege of living in a brand new building. Though when our vernacular begins to shift from “how beautiful” to “how much?” maybe it’s just time to pack it in.

Dollar Vans: Bringing Shadow Transit Out of the Cold

One of the first things I always do when friends visit me in Brooklyn is point out an endless fleet of unmarked Ford cargo vans flying up and down Flatbush and Vanderbilt Avenues. “So those are the dollar vans and,” as I point to some one flagging one down, “I mean, I’ve never taken one but they’re all over the place and I have no idea how that system works.” I’ll blame my suburban squeamishness for never raising my hand at a pleading, high pitched honk from a shoddy looking E-350 and catching a ride to wherever they end up going but there’s no doubt they provide a service to Brooklynites who have lived here far longer and have had to suffer through the dearth of transit investment in this borough far longer than I have.

There’s not really any mystery behind this shadow transit service: Lisa Margonelli covered it on the Atlantic’s blog late last year, and outlets from the Post to the Times have given the service ink, not to mention the thousands of people who take dollar vans (alright so they’re actually $2 vans) everyday because of a lack of efficient transit in their neighborhoods. They’re mostly unlicensed which means that riders are taking a certain granule of risk in their daily commute and if you’ve ever seen a 14-passenger van weaving in and out of residential traffic you’ll understand that it’s perhaps not that insignificant a risk. Dollar vans are also crushingly efficient, especially compared to MTA bus services in “forgotten” corners of Brooklyn. (A study cited by Margonelli points out that “on some corners there [are] four city buses an hour and 45 to 60 vans.” I encourage everyone to read her piece for details on the legal and cultural history of these services.)

It’s no secret that the outer boroughs are sort of screwed when it comes to transit access—I’m lucky enough to live within walking distance of Atlantic Terminal and a couple express lines but friends of mine in Bed Stuy, Ft. Greene, and Bushwick don’t exactly have a lot of options when it comes to commuting. There’s also no chance that the MTA will be expanding service any time in the near future, especially with the fiscal climate pushing gradually closer towards cold pragmatism and austerity. (There’s actually not much wrong with this but the idea that closing routes and stations with measurably low ridership levels is somehow more palatable than engaging internal audits or making strides in administrative efficiency strikes me as misguided at best and taking advantage of people with shallow pockets at worst.)

For everyone thinking that the market has corrected itself again and that entrepreneurs are shrewdly filling a gap that government can’t logically fill, well it’s not exactly that easy. The City’s Taxi and Limousine Commissions attempt to install van service along a now defunct bus line (B71) sputtered in 2010 and never made it past the pilot program, which shouldn’t be that surprising considering these routes were closed because very few riders used them. It’s actually best to think about both the regulated (MTA) and unregulated transit markets (dollars vans; and in this instance “transit” will mean bus service because running a black market subway, which extremely cool, is probably not going to happen) as two different peaks flanking a valley that contains an amalgam of different people that have been left behind by both transit markets.

Now here’s an idea that comes straight from the most Keynesian part of my soul: the job of the MTA should be to look out for the most disenfranchised urban residents and provide them an opportunity to get to and from economic centers of activity and since bus services are the easiest to change (yes, there will always be residents who clamor about buses steaming through their neighborhoods; the B65 goes by my bedroom window like clockwork every 20 minutes) there’s opportunity for realignment that caters towards that Keynesian-cum-altruistic bureaucratic worldview.

On the other hand, there’s ample opportunity for ambitious entrepreneurs to augment transit services on already busy routes, such as up and down Flatbush Avenue and they shouldn’t, at least in this writer’s completely personal opinion, be punished for picking up some administrative slack. I know the cries of “where would it stop? Do you want to outsource housing as well?” are coming, so I should say that I wouldn’t even think about beginning a discussion on what exactly could be opened to private enterprise on a city-by-city basis because I’m barely an “expert” in discussing experimental transportation projects, something I get paid to do. I’m saying that perhaps these shadow services deserve the Bunny Colvin treatment (without the later exploitation of a complacent population of law breakers): Let them operate with oversight but without the same scrutiny as other public services.

It’s unfortunate that we’re in an era where urban infrastructure is seen as the easiest fat to cut out of a bloated budget, but that’s the reality of the New New York. The dollar vans are just filling a gap that no one wants to fill—conservatives should be lauding the market-based solution to a governmental shortcoming and liberals should be happy about the transit (sorta) access for low-income neighborhoods, instead there’s a lot of hand wringing about licensing and curb pickups. Closing subway stations, though? Not a problem.

Update: I understand that countries from Guatemala to Egypt to Namibia to Burma have services exactly like this that are used at least as much as publicly sanctioned transit—I wanted to take this on from an American, and specifically New York, perspective which is why I didn’t talk about the aforementioned locales.

The Stadium on the Corner: Atlantic Yards, the Barclays Center, and Unsolicited Urbanism

When I moved to Prospect Heights—a community of 30,000 nestled between the well heeled bohemia of Park Slope and the rapidly reconditioning Crown Heights—last year, the neighborhood seemed to be finishing a particularly robust round of gentrification. You can still get a cup of coffee at the corner store for $1.00, or you can try out a $4.50 latte at any of the half dozen high end coffee shops that have sprung up along Washington, Vanderbilt, and Flatbush Avenues. You can still rent a two bedroom apartment for under $2,000 or you can splurge on a $3,250,000 penthouse in the new Richard Meier-designed glass-and-steel behemoth with panoramic views of Prospect Park and Manhattan (Jay Z and Beyonce are reportedly interested, as well).

Brooklyn’s slow march towards becoming Manhattan-lite could be coming to a climax, though, with the SHoP-designed, Bruce Ratner-backed Barclays Center slated for a grand opening in September 2012. (Frank Gehry was the original architect of the project but the starchitect’s design, which included a park on top of the stadium, was deemed “too expensive” by the developers.) The $1 billion complex will house the Nets (who just landed Joe Johnson! And Deron Williams! And gave Brook Lopez $60 million!), a professional basketball team moving 10 miles east from Newark, NJ as well as a couple hundred other events from Justin Bieber to Andrea Bocelli. There will be a 500 space parking lot a block away. There will be a $550,000/year “clubhouse” inspired by part-owner of the Nets, Jay Z.

 The Stadium on the Corner: Atlantic Yards, the Barclays Center, and Unsolicited Urbanism

Barclays Center Rendering. Copyright SHoP Architects

I hope everyone is sufficiently excited now because no one in Brooklyn seems to be. I can’t seem find a single person in my neighborhood who thinks the Barclays Center is a municipal blessing, much less a necessary evil on the path towards cultural relevance—in fact this crossroads of Brooklyn was pretty resoundingly significant before Target, Chuck E. Cheese, and Kris Humphries showed up. Some bar owners are salivating over the extra foot traffic through Prospect Heights, Park Slope, Boerum Hill, and Ft. Greene, of course, but are also weary of dismissing Cash Only policies, a quaint Brooklyn calling card that endlessly pisses off visitors who think they’re too good for those standalone cash points outside of shady bodegas and lets watering hole owners hold onto that ~5% that the good folks at Visa and American Express take for the privilege of plastic.  Other residents and business owners worry about the specter of commercial ghost towns surrounding the Barclays Center since concertgoers and Nets fans (?) don’t have much need for dry cleaners or daycare centers.

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