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Klaus Philipsen, FAIA is an architect, urban designer and architectural writer specializing in urban architecture, adaptive reuse, preservation and transportation work. He is President ArchPlan Inc. past chairman of the Baltimore Design Center, member of the AIA National Regional and Urban Design Committee and president of NeighborSpace Baltimore County. He is a co-founder of the 1000 Friends of Maryland, a statewide smart growth group. Klaus has been a presenter, speaker or moderator at international, national and regional conventions and events about cities, design, smart growth, economic development, livability, sustainability and transportation. He writes an architectural column in a local paper and is a urban design contributor on a statewide radio talk show. For inquiries about presentations, participation in discussion panels or articles write to info@archplan.com

Friday, November 21, 2014

What Works: Developers on Design

“If you get the ground plane right you can put what you want on top”.
Transit is nice to have but the real success comes from the experience on the ground”
“You see if your open space design works if kids find something to do there”
“In the first phase [of development], sacrifice density to create a there”

Yards Park, Washington DC, concerts
“Bad suburban road standards compromise the value and success of your retail”
“TOD always starts with larger infrastructure investments and somebody has to carry that burden.”
“Open space is important but it is not about its size but its quality and programming”
          "I really like eminent domain” 
These are quotes from people describing what they believe the best approach to master planning and design to be.  These people are not architects, urban designers, planners, or economic development officials.  No, they were developers at an Urban LandInstitute (ULI) gathering about appropriate design around transit.  Specifically, the quoted investor/developers were Phil London, Senior VP of Comstock Partners and Don Briggs, President Federal Realty.

In this postmodern world, broad abstract intellectual constructs about urban design or architecture are as rare as new ideas about the world itself.   This is not a time to cast the net wide, write chartas or develop doctrines.  Instead, we muddle through. It is hard to know if a time when international movements agree on a whole set of ideas will ever emerge again. “Isms” of all kinds are discredited today, whether it is modernism or socialism, existentialism, or positivism. Even the Pope is questioning some of what seemed to be immutable truths of Catholicism.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, since the biggest damage seems to consistently originate with those who are so damn sure about everything.
Navy Yard redevelopment District of Columbia at the Anacostia river

Today, an era in which diversity is considered better than homogeneity, most pick their intellectual constructs eclectically from all kinds of sources, taking a page from nature instead of philosophy.  Purity isn't nature's thing, after all. 

Consequently, architects and planners look for guidance in urban design not so much from “grand masters” but from pragmatists, people who have succeeded in building something.  They look for precedents instead of ideological models, and check performance metrics instead of intellectual purity. Collin Rowe described the eclectic approach in Collage City.  Jane Jacobs taught planners to observe ordinary people instead of following a school of thought and broke open the field of urban design and planning to laypeople such as herself, a journalist. The Danish architect Jan Gehl who elevated observation as a guide for architectural and urban design practice, became an internationally sought after expert for his pragmatic implementation of observed preferences, not for his ingenious design theories. It makes a lot of sense then, to ask investors and developers who have worked with a great number of designers and planners what worked best for them.

An organization such as ULI is perfect to do so, as it reflects the views not only of design professionals but the views of all practitioners who participate in real estate and in the process of building cities and developments. People who are active in ULI include architects, planners, landscape architects, academics, economists, real estate agents, investors and developers.  At ULI there is more than just opinion, there is research, there are fellows, there is an ever more global reach and there are publications and conferences in which results are shared.

A small such “conference” took place in mid-November at the “NavyYards” in DC, a 3 million square foot redevelopment area in the District of Columbia that brought together Mid-Atlantic speakers and the members of ULI councils in DC and Baltimore to learn about successful transit oriented development (TOD). The quotes at the beginning of this article are from that event; but those and many others could have been collected in a myriad of similar smaller gatherings or in big ones, such as the ULI fall conference earlier this year taking place in New York City with 6000 ULI members gathered to listen to Rob Speyer, CEO of Tishman Speyer speak about what is driving the resurgence of cities worldwide.

It is noticeable how the observations from developers about what projects work and why have shifted from quantitative to qualitative aspects. Of course, cost and benefit expressed in the quantitative metric of dollars is still the ultimate guide, but it is now widely realized that inclusion of some kinds of costs that would have been in past times characterized as external costs can be part of a project’s value proposition, and ultimately improve returns. Often, investments that used to be financed with public funds need now to become development cost due to the scarcity of public funds. Examples presented at the Navy Yard gathering included infrastructure investments in transit (building a new transit stop along a line where there was none before such as in the case of Assembly Row in Somerville, MA) but predominantly how strategically placed open spaces and parks can be openers and value enhancers for projects of various kinds.
Assembly Row, Sumerville MA

An example that has long been used to illustrate value creation through private and public park investments is Bryant Park in Manhattan. It was mentioned numerous times as the model for the Yards Park, a waterfront park that preceded much of the development in the Navy Yards redevelopment area and created a brand and presence in the District by drawing thousands of visitors to the area through events and the general attractiveness of the park. The second park in the Navy Yards development, the Olin designed Canal Park, is also well-programmed, attractive, and doubles up as a stormwater management facility. However, both parks were funded through the District and are maintained now by BID (the local business improvement district), still with public funds, not the special tax assessments that BID collects.

It was maybe the developer-turned-advocate-for-smart-growth Chris Leinberger who originated the the trend of developers emphasizing quality over quantity, having become prominently regarded for his warnings that the US builds too much of the wrong kind of stuff in the wrong places. Leinberger recognized early on that demographic shifts have created a new demand for high quality urban settings and expresses these views frequently from his pulpit as a Brookings Institution fellow. 

At the ULI event, architects from Cooper Carry, Torti Gallas, and WDG had the floor to teach lessons about good development around transit as well. ("Start with an armature of infrastructure, streets, and open space – only then fill in," David Kitchens, of Cooper Carry about a Leesburg Pike TOD). Still, the most memorable lessons came from the developers attested by their messages quoted above
Kid friendly: The Yards Park

Architects, landscape architects, urban designers and planners should pay attention to what enlightened developers and investors have to say. Their precedents and models can guide us better to good urban plans than many theories written for other times, and what the developers know has been tested and shown to work.  Most notably, all the relevant examples presented at the ULI event in DC were based on sound community participation. They were neither academic constructs nor were they simply dropped by powerful players on an unsuspecting population acting as guinea pigs, instead they were the result of expensive and elaborate outreach and involvement. As Jane Jacobs observed a long time ago, one just has to find out what people want and how they use the city to create good design.


Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
edited by Ben Groff

Thursday, November 13, 2014

How Recycled Buildings Create Hot Markets and Cool Communities

A Brookings study predicted in 2004 that by the year 2030 a full 30% of the entire US building stock would have been demolished and replaced. That is an astounding number, unsettling on so many levels considering this apparently equals 82 billion square feet or 1.5 times the size of the entire state of Delaware. The energy required to do so is calculated to be equivalent to powering the state of California for a full decade. 

It is no surprise, then, that various organizations wonder if we can't do better, be more efficient and less wasteful with buildings as a country in general, as cities, as developers, architects, and building professionals. To this end, preservationists and development folks came together and formed the Partnership for Building Reuse. To do the research, "the preservationists," i.e., the National Trust for Historic Preservation created a special entity called Preservation GreenLab, and the Urban Land Institute provided many of the development data.
Historic Fells Point, Baltimore
(photo: Jim Lindberg, from NHT Report)


Last week the results were in for one of the five US partner cities: Baltimore (the other cities are LA, Seattle, Philadelphia and Louisville).

It probably requires a bit of an explanation for those who still think that preservationists are those who run around in blue stockings or wool socks, wax poetic about Georgian or Edwardian architectural styles and want to protect any old newel post or mutin from being changed.  Enter Michael Powe, a PhD with millenial credentials, an energetic young man who plays with GIS like others play with their cats, a researcher who looks at cell phone usage, bars open after ten and "granularity" of building stock and "character score" all in one breath. Michael talks about preservation in terms of "older, smaller, better," economic development, "livability metrics, being green and being cool without ever mentioning architectural style or uttering the words cornice, mutin or pedestal.

With this refreshingly unorthodox approach to historic preservation, the Partnership for Reuse had no difficulty finding more than 90 people from all walks of life in Baltimore alone who wanted to be partners, forming in smaller, volunteer working groups to scrutinize all the stuff that would lead to demolition instead of reuse. Why is it that developers rather go to a cornfield and pave it over for a new subdivision instead of taking an old warehouse or class B office building and converting it to housing? The answers to questions like this, first posed in a plenary session, were rattled off in such rapid succession, (cost, codes, and cars, among other things) that one could wonder how any adaptive re-use actually ever happens. It became quickly very clear, that the smart-growth wisdom of "the roads, sewers, and water lines already being there" (and thus "free") did not adequately describe reality. In reality, infrastructure in the urban setting is there but is either too old to support infill or re-use, or has inadequate capacity, which requiring costly upgrades before any project could even begin. Building codes, fire, and egress requirements or zoning rules also need to be negotiated with code officials, who in cities have usually been pickier than in the outer areas.  Rehabilitation gives existing old structures a new lease on life with a totally different use.  There are many instances where a rehabilitation project should not have to neatly conform to rules that have clearly been developed for spanking new stuff. 
Character Score in Baltimore overlaid with the top rated bars and restaurants
(Baltmore NHT Report)


At least that was the perception even among the experts in the room who were fundamentally pre-disposed to giving old buildings a try.  It turned out, though, that those who had ventured into the treacherous waters of preservation, rehabilitation, and adaptive re-use had discovered many secret passageways and tricks that others hadn't necessarily heard about. Some much cherished prejudices about building bureaucrats preventing adaptive re-use changed when the rehab experts recounted to the novices some more positive experiences with Baltimore's building officials and fire inspectors.  Some are actually quite willing to go down the rabbit hole of alternative ways to protect life, welfare, and safety when it comes to exits, stairs, hallways and egress-ways, consistent with the aims of the rehab section of the new international building code (IBC). The zoning board is willing to look at variances and wavers if one is willing to spend the time to make the case, and the cities brand new zoning code, "Transform Baltimore," should make even those waiver trips a thing of the past in most cases. The Partnership sessions exposed many of the stories about why things can't be done as nothing but lame excuses. But this alone was worth the conversation.

The biggest obstacle that stubbornly remains is cost, and the only trick to overcome it consists in finding greenbacks somewhere to cover it. Unfortunately, it may be “greener” to keep the bones of an old building and re-use them, but the “green” part isn't necessarily the money that comes from savings of re-use over new construction. In fact, cost of adaptive re-use is often higher. In short, incentives are needed to close the funding gap, convince the financier, or bridge the time between higher initial cost and the possibly cheaper operations or the expected higher value of a refurbished building over a new one.
Cost comparisons new and rehab (from NHT Baltimore report)


The adage that they simply "don't make 'em like this anymore," is often also applied to buildings; it isn't very complimentary to architects and developers but it is responsible for one of the major findings of the research added value.  A community with a rich mix of buildings, "diversity," as Michael Powe called it, pretty much guarantees that the assessed values of buildings are on average higher than in areas where urban renewal stratified the age and destroyed neighborhood fabric and old structures, or disinvestment has stopped the addition of new structures and left the old decrepit. 

Mix of building age now has to be added to all the other mixes that are must-have ingredients for successful communities, such as mixed use zoning, a mix of modes for getting around and a demographic mix of age and ethnic background. In fact, Powe suggested that a mix of smaller, older structures results in more jobs, more local businesses and even in more women or minority-owned businesses, plus higher tax yields from additional density.

This added value accrues slowly and over time, and could be the secret money fountain that makes adaptive reuse also work financially. As always when greater investment is required upfront to create economic value in the long run, tools are needed to bring the dollars to bear through tax credits, TIFs, bonds, or any number of other methods, all of them under threat in a time where fiscal austerity is the god which Democrats and Republicans worship alike. But in this case austerity is, as the old sage goes, penny-wise but pound foolish.
More jobs, more local business, more WBE business, more tax revenue
from preseravtion (Source NHT Greenlab, Seattle report)


Baltimore is the city with the highest number of structures on the National Register of Historic Places (a prerequisite for many credits and incentives) in all of the US, and at 72% it has the highest relative number of buildings built before 1945.  If the GreenLab reports are right, this isn't a liability but a gold mine for "granularity" and "character score," indices for how attractive a city is for immigrants, the creative class and millennials. Baltimore's grit may just be the ticket that gets the city to the next level in the decades-long journey from industrial and railroad center to a destination for knowledge and innovation.  This is a whole new way of looking at preservation, indeed, and the surprise finding is that the green effect from building re-use comes less from the embedded energy or saved materials as from embedded character and authenticity. 




Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Edited By Ben Groff

Other articles on this blog related to this topic:

Preservation as Change Agent and Economic Development
Is Historic Preservation Good for Cities?

External Links:

Baltimore Report, Press Release
Building on Baltimore's History: Report of the Partnership for Building Reuse

From NHT

Friday, November 7, 2014

How does the Republican Mid-term Victory Square with the Age of Cities?


Larry Hogan, the newly elected Republican governor of the progressive blue state of Maryland, explained the shock and awe that his election has brought to the defeated democratic electorate and parts of the media that he says dwell inside an echo chamber:  "The pollsters and the pundits and the talking heads and the media all seem to talk to each other, and it creates sort of an echo chamber,” Hogan said. “I was talking to Marylanders. What we were hearing, from everywhere, was an overwhelming sense of frustration.”

Urbanists and planners reading CityLab, Urban Land, and Brookings research may have wound up in just such an echo chamber, with references to millennials, urbanism, and the sharing economy ricocheting around and around. In this world view cool millennials sit in sidewalk cafes sipping lattes and designing a new society where Uber and transit replace the personal automobile, where innovation districts are springing up in aging warehouse districts, and issues of gender and race are a thing of the past. 

The mid-term elections sent a sonic boom through this echo chamber, leaving progressives scrambling for cover and searching for meaning. 69 of 99 state legislative bodies in Republican hands, 31 Republican governors to only 18 Democratic ones.
Map of US House of Representative races 2014

After decades of anti-urbanity, urban flight, sprawl, and non-sustainable development, things were just seeming to go in the right direction. A thoughtful urban president had replaced the one who liked to depict himself as a mesquite hacking Texas rancher, and cities along with urban sophistication appeared to be on the rebound, over the Tea Party’s cries of elitism. 
The Age of Cities had been declared, the trend to cities was identified as global, urbanity the new international life-style.  US demographics showed two gigantic cohorts, the baby boomers and the millennials, pouring back into the cities, either too old or too cool for suburban homes. Immigrants were considered to be "born urban," used to cities, density, and walking, and infusing active modes into US cities.  Because of these trends many saw Republicans as a vanishing breed: too white, too male, too suburban, and too conservative to have a future in the shifting demographic landscape. Then came the mid-term election results and they don't conform to the projections. What happened?

Did the self-sustaining urbanist feed-back loop bubble just burst?  Did actual real world voters and their larger counterpart, the non-voters, indicate the priority of more basic needs and views? Did the bifurcation between the more urban and the more rural areas get revived after many already believed it to have died down alongside the Tea Party’s radical social agenda? 

Voting results suggest that the hinterlands, suburbias and rural fly-over lands have not yet receded into oblivion. The issues of smart growth, environmental policies, main street revitalization, transit, high-speed rail and stormwater management which fascinate urban planners and environmentalists leave the folks outside the urban centers entirely cold. If Maryland's small towns were the place of happiness (as I had asked in an earlier blog essay),  Cumberland, Rock Hall, Salisbury and La Plata and even some places just outside the big cities in the exurban centers of Pikesville, Ellicott City, and Towson, still voted to end the progressive agenda. Maybe worse, the threat to progressive policies failed to mobilize the voters in the urban centers, a voting pattern also seen in other traditional blue states such as Massachusetts and Illinois, not to mention states south of the Mason Dixon Line.
Maryland map of 2014 gubernatorial votes

Obviously, it is quite speculative to ascribe a larger meaning to these losses, especially since mid-term losses are typical for any ruling party. However, if we really live under this new urban paradigm, past patterns shouldn’t apply exactly the same way as before, should they?  What common denominators drive exurban voter behavior? Maryland, one of the wealthiest states in the nation, exhibits patterns similar to other urbanized states: Poverty in the city centers, some exorbitantly rich exurbs and suburbs directly outside the urban centers but otherwise wealth decreasing with the distance from the metro areas Voting results hardly reflect income. Rich Montgomery County near Washington DC voted blue, almost equally rich Howard County closer to Baltimore voted red. But one thing is clear: Every county further removed from the metro areas is securely in the red column, the image of dense blue clusters and vast red areas that mirrors the national map with its blue zones clustering along the urbanized coasts. 

The Republican message aimed squarely at “the economy” and with that they meant the old economy of heavy industry, coal, oil, industrial farming, trucking and the like. Many of the jobs in rural areas are tied to those legacy industries. In Maryland the poultry industry (big on Maryland's Eastern Shore and tied up in an eternal struggle with State regulators in Annapolis regarding environmental regulations), forestry, farming, and lately, just outside Maryland, in Pennsylvania and also, of course in the Dakotas the once gain surging oil and gas industries which brought jobs through shale fracking. Even the presumably ailing auto industry has a renaissance in the southern states where Volkwagen, BMW and Mercedes have created shiny thriving factories in the centers of red territory.These legacy industries are the opposite of the urban innovation districts where knowledge workers program 3-D printers to produce smartly designed products cleanly and sustainably and windfarms and solar panels make carbon free energy.

The legacy industries also are often in conflict with the goals of smart growth, preservation, and resilience. In the small towns and hamlets one is more likely to smell diesel than the aroma of freshly brewed organic coffee and more likely to welcome a new development than in the crowded centers. Residents of the rural lands have little interest in simply being the well-preserved playgrounds for urban gentry who come on weekends with their canoes, mountain bikes, or hiking boots. 

The issue is more complicated than this rather flippant description which follows too neatly the pretty well-worn divide of the American cultural war  the “elite” versus regular people or as the battles of SUV versus Prius and bicycle, or Coors Light versus micro brew IPA. There is, for example, Greenville SC, a Republican mayor, and stunning progress in making the town green not only in name which was so aptly described in an Atlantic story earlier this year that talked about urban progress in this  red city and in a blue city in Vermont.

The sudden loss of the comfort bubble after realizing that a governor of the other color is moving into the seat of power requires a more detailed review and re-calibration.

In his campaign, Maryland's new Republican governor prudently stayed away from all the social issues and anti-intellectual statements about "the elite" that characterized the Tea Party wars. "Detoxified" is what New York Times columnist David Brooks calls this cleaned up Republican strategy. Hogan’s successful campaign message,which resonated also with many Democrats, was simply one of economics, even though it still echoed tea partiers sentiments, namely calling Democrats "tax and spenders". Hogan listed 40 taxes that the previous governor O'Malley had piled up, rather carelessly adding even speed cameras into the list, anything, really that cost people money. The message that people had to pay too much for progressive policies obviously hits a nerve with people, even though the State's tax rate expressed in relation to the State's GDP had gone down under the previous Democratic administration. Candidate Hogan's favorite targets all related to urban matters, especially what he calls the "rain tax," a fee on stormwater run-off levied on property owners with larger areas of sealed surfaces. Run-off is a big topic for environmentalists, because it winds up in the Chesapeake Bay instead of re-charging the ground water. The fee sounds reasonable enough to environmentalists and can be avoided by rain water harvesting, but to rural folks mitigation measures are more complicated.   

Like  Republicans across the country, he is also opposed to big spending on transit. He stated that he would can Maryland's two large "New Starts" transit projects with a combined cost of $5.5 billion and build roads instead. His argument: With the vast majority of people getting around in cars it is irresponsible to spend over 50% of the transportation funds on transit. A message thatbobviously targets the vast rural and further out suburban areas that would see little benefit from new urban rail transit and had seen their local “highway user funds” slashed by the state, leaving gaping potholes unfilled throughout many communities. But a Republican governor with so many cross-over votes would ignore the urban centers at his own peril and should be open to the economic development aspects of transit investments. Across the country urban rail projects have shown to be economic engines that go beyond jobs during construction but translate into economic and community development and meaningful land side investments (as explained on this blog many times).
Proposed Baltimore Red Line downtown tunnel station

The mid-term results in Maryland reflect  not so much where voters are concentrated in terms of sheer numbers (the dense urban centers more than ever outweigh the larger but less populated hinterlands) but the fact that suburban and rural voters were much more motivated than urban voters, had higher turn-out and believed more strongly in their case. In Maryland pundits attribute this largely to an African American candidate who may have turned off white males but certainly failed to energize his own base. Nationally, beyond the matter of personalities,  the mid-term elections teach that motivation and turn-out can offset the demographic trends which would suggest Republican votes to decrease and that neither party can take their votes for granted simply based on geography or demographics. 

Like the parties themselves, progressives, environmentalists and civil rights activists have to recognize that voters do not fall  into neat categories anymore with homogeneous views expressed in comprehensive platforms. Allegiances shift, social conservatives may be environmentalists, or conversely, civil rights and social activists may be cool to environmental matters. The sustainability view that everything is connected with everything else does not hold with the modern voter who is more likely not a member of anything very predictable such as a union or local party between elections.

Can anyone who is truly concerned with the future we leave to our children and grandchildren find common ground with someone who wants to eliminate water clean-up requirements and cut transit funding in favor of roads? After the big bang of the mid-term election results, this is a question that every Democrat from the President on down has to ask. Is there any good argument to be made for not penalizing undesirable behavior, for not subsidizing wind farms, for not spending more money on pre-K education to give young children from poor backgrounds a head start in life?  Can withdrawal of government intervention for the greater good be a defensible moral position?

It is too arrogant and presumptuous to assume that the vast majority of folks who either didn't vote or who voted against the democratic or green urban agenda simply don't know better or are cynically choosing their own welfare over the common good. The real reason for the fact that about 66% didn't even bother to vote must lie beyond which one of the two parties is right. 

Much has been discussed about the disadvantages of a majority voting system that doesn't allow smaller groups to articulate a well-defined program such as the green parties do in Europe. Much has been written about how corrupt the election process has become with all the campaign money flowing freely from those who have. Then there is the usual hand wringing about the media and how poorly people are informed and how much votes are about personalities rather than issues. (Maryland's democratic candidate was called wooden and robotic, the Republican affable and friendly). The list of what makes people apolitical goes on and on. Most of these reasons lie way outside the issue of urban versus rural lifestyles or values. More intriguing and possibly contributing more to voter frustration and anxiety is the question of  the  instability of the economic system and its continued worldwide sputtering . The possibility that the Great Recession was the spectacle of this model having crashed irreparably against the wall is unsettling voters to this day, some seven years after it began. 

The fragility of the economic model also touches on the big question of : What next? Can there be sustainability and growth and expanding prosperity all at once? Can one have one's cake and eat it, too, or does sustainability necessarily mean restriction, scarcity and cutting out the fun? This question, too, has been asked many times before. Time and again the growth and prosperity model got another lease on life and the dooms-day prognosticators have been proven wrong. Is it different this time? Republicans generally don’t seem to think so.
Hurricane Isabel flooding in Hampton, Va

Is climate change finally the harbinger of a different future? Haven't both sides of this issue, roughly represented by our two political parties, been proven wrong? Hasn't it become evident that big government cannot solve the issue of carbon emissions? Haven't even economic powerhouses such as Germany and Japan, with strong governments and a history of government intervention, not only lost a lot of their luster but also made hardly any headway on carbon emissions? Hasn’t the US, thanks to more free-wheeling and permissive attitudes, notably vis-a-vis fracking, accidentally achieved bigger carbon reductions than those who built gigantic wind farms and who put solar panels on millions of roofs? 

I will not try to answer these questions here but simply suggest that these types of seismic issues upset the usual order of the political landscape. They may, in fact, be a deeper reason why traditional political engagement in parties, unions and political organizations across the established democracies is vanishing and with it voter participation and the enthusiasm that comes from feeling right about an entire catechism of issues. Voters today are insecure and finicky. They vote for people that they like better at one moment only to then drop their favorite like a spurned lover the next. Just recall how the excitement for the dynamic young president has vanished and been replaced by cynicism and disappointment? 

Human knowledge will continue to grow explosively and so will the opportunities that come from communication itself and from the increased ability to solve problems. I believe that we find ourselves at a transition where top down control and governance becomes more obsolete and ineffective, and bottom up methods of control, governance and effective organization are still only emerging, are largely untested and far from ready to be a reliable substitute. Indicators of the inability to solve complex problems top-down include the failed international carbon control exercises, the international failing to contain Ebola, but also the much smaller failures to implement or control large infrastructure projects in even the most advanced countries. Examples that come to mind include the Japanese nuclear power plants, the bizarre spectacle of the completed but unopened new Berlin airport or our national inability to get any part of a high speed rail network going. The real difficulties of large scale governance and the ideological aversion against government per se, the belief in the power of the masses all have different roots but seem to currently commingle back and forth across traditional party lines forming a rather explosive brew highly visible in "Washington."  

Neither technology nor science has been harnessed sufficiently to not only not do damage but have plausible answers to the large and looming challenges of our time, inequality, lack of paid work, absence of sustainable solutions for housing and feeding a world of seven billion people or how to unify work, dignity and leisure in a way that doesn't leave out so many people from meaningful and self-sustaining work. In this period of transition, old technologies of manufacturing, farming, extraction and energy production are still needed on a large scale and necessary to support the population of the planet.

Meanwhile, urban centers will remain the fields for experimentation and innovation implemented on a controllable scale, sometimes top down, sometimes bottom up. Ironically, Washington DC as a city is thriving and full of innovation while the official Washington of the national government appears to be frozen up. Innovating, creative cities could become even  more distant from rural regions in which old technologies reign while they may be governed by mayors of either party color.

To use transport as one example, it isn't clear at all whether mega investments such as high
Personal autonomous "pod" in use at Heathrow airport today
speed rail, 
urban subways or rail systems can plausibly be replaced by smart mobility through self-organization, autonomous vehicles, real time on demand deployment, diverse land use and active mobility options. But it is intriguing to think that those cities that have been deprived of those investments by mayors and governors opposed to transit may be the first to develop those alternatives.  We have seen this already in emerging economies because of lack of resources but may see it also here in the US. Those evolving mobility options may even bring cities and rural areas closer together again.

Back in the here and now, though, the mid-term election results are setting many cities back quite a bit, no doubt about that.


Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
edited by Ben Groff



Friday, October 31, 2014

Modernism, Preservation and the The Morris Mechanic Theater

Most people hate it, some really love it. It is made from exposed concrete (béton brût) which in English is often called "brutalism," a translation that is as convincing as it is misleading. Boston has its concrete City Hall and Washington a whole bunch of federal buildings that look brutally like bunkers, so the convergence of raw and brutal is not surprising.
The Mechanic Theater, boarded up as an empty shell
(Photo: Fred Scharmen)


Baltimore, too has a fair share of concrete fortresses that became popular after the riots when many buildings were meant to be fortresses, indeed.

But the Morris Mechanic Theater, designed in 1963 and completed in 1967, is different. Or was, we should say, because it is being decimated to rubble while I am typing this.  

The mindlessly produced fortress architecture is almost universally hated.  It was made by architects who misunderstood the organic architecture which Corbusier, Scharoun and others had sculpted from concrete, and tragically mixed it up with modernist industrial production.  The Mechanic, though, had the quality to elicit also love and admiration from a few connoisseurs and was good enough to have made it onto the cover of national architectural magazines. As Martin Millspaugh, one of the original movers and shakers of Baltimore's renaissance recalls, the Architectural Record called the theater and the adjacent One Charles Center buildings "two important structures of the 1960ies".
Charles Center: The modern world, transit and transparency
(Source: Fred Scharmen, AIA presentation)

Once called "monumentalcity" for its monuments and opulent architecture, After the rebuild in the wake of the great fire in 1904 Baltimore had hardly any additional new buildings in the decades leading up to the sixties, let alone buildings that became famous for outstanding architecture.  In spite of that record, when push came to shove, haters of the avantgarde Mechanic prevailed when it was put on the chopping block, against the heroic efforts of architect Mike Murphy who, as a commissioner of the historic commission, had fought hard to protect the building as a landmark. Tragically, Mike took this fight to his grave, sparing him the sight of today's rubble.

Conventional wisdom saw and sees the Mechanic as ugly, theater specialists had declared it functionally obsolete, urban designers found flaw with its "ass-forward" orientation and even some modernists either considered Johansen, its designer and architect or his product as "second rate." This made it easy for developers to consider it impractical and too expensive to re-use.

Thus the Mechanic, whose namesake and developer real estate magnate Morris Mechanic died a year before completion, was never an undisputed star. "Theater audiences complained about bad sight lines and production folks about insufficient backstage space. Only eight years after opening in 1967 it closed for a major renovation to reopen to more Broadway-style shows. It wasn't that Mechanic, had no experience with show theater.  His possession of several theater venues along Baltimore and Lexington Streets had handed him a priced parcel smack in the middle of what was then planned as Baltimore's biggest project ever: Charles Center.  Planned were 22-acres of 20 development sites with eight new office buildings, with over 2 million square feet of space including a new Federal Office Building, a new 800-room hotel, 400,000 square feet of commercial and specialty retail space, a transportation terminal, three public spaces, integrated pedestrian malls, 4,000-car underground parking spaces and the 1,800 seat theater orginally envisioned as an even larger "TV theater".  This grand, sweeping urban renewal plan envisioned to get Baltimore back on the map ended more than a decade of stagnation and was a bold gesture against the city's looming decline.  What Morris Mechanic received for his other parcels was a lot at ground zero of the Baltimore street grid, the corner of Charles and Baltimore Streets, seen as a cultural center intended to bring life into the area after hours, a concept we call today "24/7." (Mechanic had to agree to at least 26 weeks of shows per year, Millspaugh remembers in an e-mail to me about this article). Millspaugh confirms that Mechanic seized the moment with gusto and
Mies van der Rohe: One Charles Center
(photo: ArchPlan.Inc.)
arranged a dinner with a no lesser architect than Philip Johnson to design his theater. After all, just up the street Mies van der Rohe built One Charles Center, a knock-off of New York's Seagram Building. Architecture with a capital A was understood as a driver for the success of Charles Center. But just as Mies never got excited about Baltimore and had one of his employees take care of the project, Johnson politely referred Mr. Mechanic to his friend John Johansen, the Baltimore fee scale was just too low for Philip Johnson. Johansen, also a Harvard graduate was less known and had just begun to shape his own style which he called "functional expressionism" after starting his career with Marcel Breuer and SOM's international style.  He took on the Baltimore theater which came one of his most evocative "expressionist" projects. Apparently Johansen himself neither liked nor used the term brutalism for his work and sympathized with the far more complex ideas of Charles Jencks ("Adhocism") and other intellectual concepts of the time that were later well expressed in "Collage City" (Collin Rowe). These theories dealt with the fragmentation of the city and architectural style in a much more honest way than current concepts of New Urbanism which reinstate classical orders.
The completion of the Morris A. Mechanic Theater represented the full realization of Baltimore’s renaissance at Charles Center.John Johansen’s sculptural concrete design for the Mechanic Theater positioned Baltimore as a leader in urban planning and architectural innovation. Commanding attention, the Mechanic’s vitality and expression ...made it a symbol of Charles Center. Similar to the Charles Center project itself, Mechanic’s desire to create a modern complex for theater performances mirrored the city’s broader attempts to improve its image through architecture and design. (Anna Danz).
Millspaugh puts it this way:
the Mechanic became the symbol of Charles Center and the emphasis on trail-blazing design in the city's first Renaissance. 
Today when Baltimore once again is at a point of departure, this time as a cool, idiosyncratic and affordable destination for millennials in search of authenticity and innovation, it is worth recalling how the Charles Center renewal plans were fueled by ambition, urgency, vision, a belief in the future and highest caliber talent to make the vision happen.
Light and shadow on the Mechanic Theater (the foreground
curved roof is the subway headhouse, a later addition
in a contrasting language. (photo: Fred Scharmen)

Architecture professor Jeremy Kargon who spoke as a panelist in last week's panel discussion about his trips to the new area when as a still impressionable young lad recalled "the other worldliness" of Charles Center with its all-around modern structures, the large pedestrian only plazas, sky-bridges and underground car parks. It is exactly this element of futurism that makes the area so unpopular with a generation of disenchanted baby boomers who saw Baltimore fade during much of their life. During this time cities all across America turned their back to the pedestrian and automobile separation, modernism and separation of uses that made Charles Center ultimately a pretty sterile affair most of the time, notwithstanding fairs, markets and parties designed to enliven those large plazas. AIA's panel discussion was scheduled as an academic discourse about modernism, preservation and what history can tell us, not as a "save the Mechanic" event for which it was too late anyway, what with the backhoes clawing their way through the concrete maze. For such a discussion the event had a massive turnout with 150 people coming out to hear six panelists elaborate why they did or didn't like the Mechanic and what its demolition could teach us. Maybe I am going out on a limb if I suggest that this turnout represents a shift and that millennials may discover the charm of modernism. The Baltimore of the mid-sixties awakening from a long slumber, soon to be rattled by the unrest that came with the demands for civil rights could provide interesting touch points for the current young generation.

Panelist Anna Danz, a recent graduate of the University of Virginia, is an example of a new generation re-discovering the spirit of the era and the Mechanic which she made the subject of her  thesis paper in architectural history. Residing in Baltimore she injected herself in the current discussions about not only the demolition of the theater but the also the planned demolition of the McKeldin Fountain at the Inner Harbor which she sees strongly linked to the theater in style, material
McKeldin Fountain: Sculptural concrete
(Photo: ArchPlan Inc)
and intent. (McKeldin as Governor had initiated the bond funding for Charles Center and oversaw later as Mayor the continuation of the renewal momentum at the Inner Harbor). I wholeheartedly agree with Danz' complex view of preservation: We should stand for what we have built as a society, past and present, no matter if we always like it. The skybridges, modernism, béton 
brût, it all stands for something that evolved from a historic context and needs to be understood as such. Wipe the slate blank, remove the layer of a certain period only because it fell out of favor and you rob a city of its richness, complexity, context and depth and with it you rob the younger generation of the opportunity to see what previous generations believed in when they were able to hope and dream.

Not to be misunderstood, I do not advocate freezing things in time as an abstract goal for its own sake. Tearing down a long vacant dysfunctional structure and replacing it with hundreds of apartments in a hopefully vibrant, dense redevelopment certainly has its good sides, namely economic development and the repair of some of the urban design problems the theater had. The new mixed use complex promises to be quality architecture and will hold the downtown corner of Charles and Baltimore Streets more successfully than the Mechanic did it with its various service functions facing Baltimore's main street. At one point it looked like the body of the theater could be integrated into a large mixed use complex with an apartment tower, but with the deepening of the recession and with the unwillingness of the Mayor to advance preservation even in part, the developer Howard Brown could decide that adaptive reuse of the concrete sculpture was too expensive, too
The uninviting Charles Street side of the Mechanic with
garage entrances facing the main artery
(photo: Fred Scharmen)
dysfunctional and not something he would further pursue. So he waited out the stay that Baltimore's historic commission had achieved with a "special listing" and then let the backhoes roll.

Shalom Baranes, the architects of the planned new development on the site of the theater still show a design on their website that includes the Mechanic as part of a new residential tower design. In reality, their latest design is two towers and no trace of béton brût and its jarring fragmentation will remain.

Sky-bridges, concrete headhouses for underground garages and the bridge building of the Hamburger clothing store have been dismantled years ago and the "other-worldliness" of the area has given way to a hodge-podge of various interventions which are dispersed among the modernist towers that
Corbusier in Weissenhof , Stuttgart (ArchPlan Inc)
continue to dominate the area. By contrast, the Weissenhof Siedlung in Stuttgart, for example was carefully reconstructed in style after Hitler's hate of modern architecture, war damage, and postwar neglect had defaced it in part. Once brought back into shape this international Bauhaus exhibit has become a globally known tourist attraction in a city that is otherwise known for being the home of Daimler Benz. Displaying modernism as a living neighborhood has furthered Stuttgart's brand identity. Similarly, in Seattle the Space Needle and the former world exhibit area were maintained as an ensemble including the space-age design mono-rail. To this day these landmarks brand the city just as much as Microsoft.
the Charles Center redevelopment plan
(with permission of the University of
Baltimore)

In spite of its historic stature as a pre-eminent national example of carefully orchestrated urban renewal for which, at the time, even urban renewal skeptic Jane Jacobs had found friendly words, Charles Center was never considered as an ensemble that could still brand Baltimore in the 21st century. Undoubtedly, in spite of all the high caliber original plan to graft Charles Center as a link between the old retail and the traditional financial districts, the implemented renewal had some severe urban design shortcomings and actually acted less as a link and more as a barrier. 

Ironically, this has a lot to do with the fact that the modernist design relied heavily on the pedestrian to enliven all the plazas and bridges all closed to cars. The pedestrian was, indeed, still very common when Charles Center was designed. The species became endangered and nearly extinct in the decades of urban flight that followed. Today's planners have rediscovered the pedestrian but dislike the separation between walking and driving that was the underlying principle of Charles Center. However, before one declares it as flawed or failed, one should consider that the principle is still common and successful in much of Europe where walking always remained part of city life.

In the US we are quick to dismiss what was done before us and call it failed. The somehow admirable optimistic conviction that current knowledge is far superior to the efforts of the past can easily degrade into hubris. Still, that Charles Center is being dismantled piece by piece, can also be seen as incremental progress and adaptation to changed needs.
Space Needle Seattle (ArchPlan Inc)
Still, as it now emerges it won't ever work as a convincing exhibit that represents the onset of modernism in Baltimore; too much of the campus-like setting has already lost its unique identity. Once the center piece, the Mechanic, will be gone, future generations won't have enough left to grasp the can-do spirit and the "other wordliness" that had gripped Baltimore when it began to redefine itself first with Charles Center and later the world-renowned Inner Harbor. Millspaugh goes even further seeing the diverse composition of  vastly 
differing styles at Baltimore's 100% corner at risk: 
The demolition strikes a mortal blow to the unique architectural museum at Baltimore and Charles Streets -- composed of the Mechanic, plus the Victorian B&O Headquarters, the Savings Bank's Roman Temple and Blaustein's 1960's office buildings.
(
Meanwhile, some older neighborhoods in Baltimore were luckily declared historic and left widely intact. Those older areas are not only cherished and respected today but have become the most vital, viable and vibrant zip-codes in a city still calibrating its bearings.

I want to close these thoughts about preservation with a letter from Mike Murphy, FAIA dug out from my archive. As noted, he fought more than anybody for the preservation of the Morris Mechanic theater until his untimely death suddenly removed him from the midst of the community.  
Demolition (photo: ArchPlan Inc.)
Mike Murphy, July 18, 2007: As a Commissioner of the Baltimore City Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, I have nominated the Morris Mechanic Theater, at the corner of Baltimore and Charles Streets, to become a Baltimore City Landmark. My nomination argues that the Mechanic Theater should be preserved and protected from demolition in consideration of the following: 
  •  The importance of the Charles Center redevelopment in the history of Baltimore architecture and culture. 
  • The importance of the Mechanic Theater as the center piece of the Charles Center redevelopment. 
  •   The importance of the Mechanic Theater to the history of live theater in Baltimore. 
  •   The importance of John Johansen, FAIA, as an individual architect of national prominence. 
  •  The importance of the building as representative of a style of architecture, “brutalism,” that was pioneered by Le Corbusier carried forward in this country by Marcel Breuer, John Johansen, Paul Rudolph, Kallman & McKinnel, Louis Kahn, and others.  
The preservation of the Mechanic Theater as a Baltimore City Landmark will also honor such leaders as Theodore McKeldin, Walter Sondheim, Jefferson Miller, and others, who, in the 1960’s, turned the tide of decline in downtown Baltimore and began to plan for the future with optimism and confidence.  
The planners for Charles Center, advised by the deans of the Penn, Harvard, and MIT schools of architecture, sought outstanding contemporary architects to carry out its projects.  This resulted in commissions to Mies van der Rohe, Conklin & Rossant, the fledgling local firms of RTKL and Peterson and Brickbauer, and John Johansen, the architect of the Mechanic Theater. 
I am writing to ask for your, and the Baltimore AIA’s, support of this nomination.  In my view, the Mechanic Theater is a distinguished work of architecture, from a time that may not be sufficiently appreciated at this moment, and that should be preserved as part of Baltimore’s architectural heritage.  Michael V. Murphy, AIA, Murphy & Dittenhafer, Inc.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
edited by Ben Groff

Articles on this blog "Community Architect":
Is historic preservation good for cities?


External links related to the topic:

AIA Event 
Klaus Philipsen in the Baltimore Brew about the Mechanic and Preservation
For a short overview of the history of Charles Center see here
For detailed research on Charles Center read Anna Danz' thesis paper

Friday, October 24, 2014

Are Two-Way Streets Really Always Better?

To be for or against one way streets has turned into a matter of credo with Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs as the opposing prophets. Once an issue resides in the pantheon of those belief systems, rational deliberation becomes difficult. Curiously, the one way street question has become part of the litmus test in the catechism of "good" traffic engineering.

As such, this issue has joined a whole set of other transportation belief items such as bike lanes versus cars or cars versus transit. Exhibits are Toronto's mayor and his fight against bike-lanes, the current debates about streetcars, the acrimony in the congressional debates about Amtrak budgeting or the refusal of Florida's governor to accept federal high speed rail funding. A current example is Maryland's gubernatorial campaign where the Republican contender announced he will scrap two multi-billion dollar transit projects after over ten years of planning and design.


However, the topic of one-way versus two-way streets is hardly suited for ideological positions even if one approaches the question with "complete streets" in mind and a braoder approach than simply what is best for the automobile, A closer look at the topic reveals that it is less than obvious what is better for pedestrians, bicyclists, transit and residents, ostensibly the other components in a "complete streets" discussion.


To get to the bottom of the debate, it is necessary to recapitulate the reasons that one-way streets were adopted in the first place. The term didn't exist before there were cars in reasonable numbers, even though congestion certainly predates automobiles and goes back to the days of horse and buggy.

No doubt, one way streets became a major staple of traffic management in cities across the world as result of traffic engineering and the simple thought that streets can handle a higher throughput of motorized vehicles if they have two or more lanes flowing in one direction than one lane in each. The reasons are easy to understand: Fewer conflicts at intersections (no problems with left turns across opposing traffic) and signalization that allows sequential green lights allowing a platoon of cars to move through many signals without stopping by sequencing the green phases such that the first cars starting up from a signal encounter a green signal at each subsequent intersection set for the speed that is allowed on a certain street. Many people don't realize that such progression cannot possibly be had in both directions at the same time.

These advantages are widely understood and known and are the key reasons why one way streets were introduced in the first place and why they are seen as bad today. Today's logic is often just as simple: what was done in the name of the automobile and its flow must be bad for pedestrians and everybody else not in a car. The instances where the car centric planning of the last 50 years or so has turned streets into inhospitable traffic sewers  that are difficult to negotiate for all other modes and terrible to live on are so numerous that anybody simply promoting the inverse, the de-throning of the car in planning, has a receptive audience. From there it isn't far to the logic that what is bad for the car must be good for all other modes. But as we will see, that is a false logic.

The one way issue represents itself in a different light depending if we talk about historic cities that were laid out before cars and have narrow cart-ways or the wide streets of western cities like Denver or San Diego. The initial applications of the one way craze that swept across cities in the US and Europe starting as early as the thirties and carried on well into the 1960s and was eventually applied whether streets were tight or amply wide. Today one should approach the question in a much more comprehensive manner with criteria expanding far beyond traffic capacity and flow of motor vehicles and include at least the following:


  • Quality of life of residents along the streets in terms of noise, fumes, safety, access, parking, walking to and from the front door etc.
  • Safety, accommodation, convenience and pleasurable experience of active modes such as walking and biking  
  • Accommodation and operation of transit, buses, streetcars, light rail including stops and stations
  • Environmental costs and benefits in terms of noise, pollution, encouragement of active modes versus driving, direct access versus detours
  • Urban design. In which way is the city and street better experienced? In which configuration does the street become a good public space or urban room?
    Conflict points at two- way intersection

Baltimore has plenty of those narrow historic streets that are just wide enough for two decent sidewalks (partly taken by the famous stoops), a parking lane on each side and two narrow at most 10' travel lanes. Interestingly the city is almost like a large scale test tube for both approaches in dealing with the narrow streets, one way streets and two way streets. North, south and west of downtown and in downtown itself, Henry Barnes, the Robert Moses of Baltimore, has laid out a full system of one way streets. By contrast, the citizens of Fells Point, east of downtown, who had successfully fought an urban expressway, miraculously escaped the craze and have a network of lovely narrow historic two way streets that would make Jane Jacobs smile. Similarly Pigtown (Washington Village) is pretty free of one way streets. Some other urban village areas have hybrids of a mix of one and two way streets in place, such as Hamden and Highlandtown, both with very successful "main street" type streets in two-way configuration.
Tracing vehicle movement at an intersection in the snow

Folks north of downtown who live in historic Mount Vernon around the nation's oldest Washington monument, started to question the wisdom of their one-way streets some time ago and even got the transit agency to remove some bus lines from the narrower streets in anticipation of two way traffic which would have made it hard to run the buses. This is an initial example which shows that two way streets in narrow roadways may have unintended consequences. Buses that may work on a 10' lane if no one comes the other way do not run as well if a bus or truck may come the other way.

If the main goal is to slow traffic, two way streets with intersecting two way streets, signalized or as four way stops or signals will do that simply through the creation of many additional conflict points, especially through vehicles that want to turn left. If there is no room for a turn lane they will block everybody behind them, significantly reducing the capacity in a green phase. Seen per street the green phase through-put with one lane in each direction is only half of what it is for a one way configuration if one looks in the direction that was open before.  This would be most noticeable in a very directional peak hour flow and less so in a less directional pattern. Of course, it makes little sense to look in only one direction or at only one street if the conversion would occur on several streets, the most likely scenario since one way systems require at least pairs of two streets to work at all. Analyzing one or several pairs of streets, the lane losses on one street are numerically

windshield perspective of typical Mt Vernon Street in
Baltimore: St Paul Street
(photo: Gerald Neily)
compensated by gains on the sister street in terms of total directional through lanes.  The more complicated intersections, the left turners, different ways to find parking spaces, the issue of double parking (very common on one way streets with several lanes in the same direction) etc. make the calculation of actual capacity more complex than just adding all single lane capacities.


Overall, in a conversion of one-way into two-way streets a reduction in throughput and speed is to be expected even if the total number of lanes per direction remains the same in any given area.  Again, if that is the main goal, the conversion works. However, volume reduction usually is desired to help accomplish other objectives such as improvement of the quality of life for residents along a street or improved safety. Slower cars are certainly good for pedestrians or bicyclists since survival in a crash decreases exponentially with speed. However, the increased safety from that may be more than offset by higher risks at intersections where pedestrians have to fight cars that can come from all directions. Midblock crossing, usually denounced as "J walking" but frequent nevertheless, becomes more challenging when vehicles approach from both directions. Which system really provides the increased safety for walking and bicycling is therefore not obvious and requires a very detailed review.


If bike-lanes are included into the comparison the situation of overall width becomes crucial. If lane width is excessive and can be reduced, bike lanes could be eked out even in a two way conversion. However, in our Baltimore examples with 10' travel lanes, bikes have to share lanes. In the one way model with two lanes in the same direction motorists may change the lane to pass a bicyclist safely. The department of transportation could even become as "radical" as converting one lane of traffic into a protected one-way or two way bike-lane. In the two-way model, i.e. one lane per direction, motorists may have to stay behind bicyclists for entire blocks without a possibility for safe passage, something hard to imagine in the hasty reality of most cities. Cars breathing down one's neck make bike riding also very uncomfortable. A marked bicycle lane, even an unprotected one, is not an option in the two-way model except if a parking lane would be sacrificed. This, in turn is usually unacceptable for residents that rely on those lanes to place their car with off street parking a rarity in the older sections of town.


So far we have only discussed measurable engineering issues such as capacity, conflict points and accommodation of various modes but the matter became complex enough. The issues of noise and pollution track the metrics of flow in some way and are also measurable. The more queuing, stopping and starting, the more pollution. On the other side, if traffic volumes drop significantly, fewer motor vehicles create also less pollution which could offset the increases from stop and go. Lower speeds mean less noise but free flow usually is quieter than stop and go, so here again, benefits and losses accrue on both sides of the ledger.

The urban design and quality of life issues are less quantifiable. For example, Charles Street is Baltimore's eminent north south spine and the divider between the city quadrants. Charles Street traverses Washington Square, one of the most beautiful urban spaces in the country. As such the street has a lot of meaning and is a defining element of Baltimore's identity. Should such a street be experienced from both directions, not only by pedestrians, but also those in buses, cars or on bicycles? Isn't the square designed this way with its split road-bed around the monument? In many ways the answer would be yes, a reason why the request for a two-way Charles Street has come up many times.

Washington Square in Mt Vernon, Baltimore
One way north on both sides.
Those proposals were always squashed by traffic engineering (there are a few bottlenecks downstream that would be hard nuts to crack for traffic management). The insertion of a streetcar on Charles Street, promoted for years by some (my firm assisted on a feasibility study) would also require to keep it one way. 

The question remains, should the status of even our premier streets be decided by engineers on the basis of the rather dense "science" of traffic engineering which leaves everything else unanswered? Shouldn't vital issues like this be a civic decision based on a much broader set of value questions ranging from urban design to business? Who responds to the concerns of retail and restaurants on those streets where speed, throughput and restricted parking translate into life or death for a business and are often valued differently by traffic engineers.

The situation is quite different in many western cities where cart-ways are typically much wider and one way streets were not put in place for lack of space between the curbs but solely for traffic management and signal control reasons. Denver or San Diego have many super wide downtown streets that are one way with six or even more lanes all in one direction where diversion into two way traffic would pose few space problems and still leave space for bike lanes, medians and the like.


Getting this far the reader may be thoroughly confused and we haven't even mentioned specialty solutions such as rush hour only one-way streets employed by a few cities in an attempt to bridge the best of both worlds. There is no way around it: there is no simple answer. The topic of one-way versus two-way streets is ill suited for ideological disputes or culture wars. What is best for a city, community or neighborhood needs to be carefully weighed using as many metrics as possible. The answers will vary from case to case.


Still, one can probably safely conclude that one-way streets, having been imposed on cities across the world without much deliberation and only with the consideration of throughput efficiency in mind, won't always hold up to a more comprehensive evaluation two-way streets may often be better, indeed. Either way, a street needs to be so much more than just a conduit for motor vehicles.


Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

edited by Ben Groff

Related articles on this blog:
Street Design
Complete Streets, the DNA of a New Mobility Culture
Traffic Management: The End of the Tyranny of the Red Light?
The Street as a Public Space: Rethinking Public Spaces
Mode Choices: A City for People and Not For Cars


External sources and links:
A pamphlet against one way street conversion