Sunday, July 31, 2016

Walkable Jerusalem at Medium

I've created a publication on, which will be a continuation of this blog. A few posts are now up at the new site.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Mall and sprawl at the Israel Museum

This past summer vacation I happened to visit the Israel Museum for the first time since, perhaps, 2008. Because my recreational activities tend to be child-centered, and because my older boys would react with grimaces and groans in recent years whenever I suggested a Museum visit, I never got a first-hand look at the Museum’s highly-touted "renewal" until a few weeks ago, when I ventured there with my youngest child. All I could think was: they closed large portions of the Israel Museum for an extended period, and spent $100 million ...  and they couldn't plant a few trees?

It's a daunting task to criticize the Israel Museum, whose collections I'm always a little ashamed of not knowing better, and whose temporary exhibitions I'm often sorry I don't to get see (the "not getting to" is one of the main problems, see below). I'm certainly not qualified to judge the professional-curatorial aspects of the recent renovation. I'm perfectly willing to accept the consensus view that the organization of the displays is now more logical and user-friendly than it was before. In point of fact I have little basis for comparison, since my visits to the Museum, from the early 1990s up until the time the renovations started, were sporadic and, from the late 1990s on, conducted in a young-family context. I never expected to see more than a little bit of the art and archaeology stuff at a time, and was often restricted to the Youth Wing sandbox and the dim tunnel of the Shrine of the Book, which my kids, like everybody else's, related to as a kind of amusement-park funhouse.

What I find hard to grasp is that so considerable a sum of money was spent on refurbishing the Museum without addressing its inner-sprawl problem in a more meaningful way. The issue of the Museum's location -- sprawl in "macrocosm" -- is theoretically going to be addressed by urbanization plans for the surrounding area, which I discuss briefly below. But what about the grounds of the Museum "campus"  itself -- sprawl in "microcosm?"

Kiryat HaLe'om

The drawbacks of the Museum’s setting are no news to anyone. Its various structures are dispersed within a self-contained compound -- generally referred to as a "campus" -- in the city’s Givat Ram-Kiryat HaLe’om (“National Precinct”) area; the campus itself is surrounded by a sea of parking and separated from its nearest neighbors -- the Knesset, the Bloomfield Science Museum and the Hebrew University -- by a forbidding network of multi-lane roads. This setting has obvious implications for the Israel Museum’s ability to function as a public/urban amenity. You can't catch an exciting new exhibition in the course of a downtown shopping trip; you can't stop at the Museum after a stressful day at the office to decompress while contemplating a favorite painting.  It's not situated at a comfortable walking distance from anyone's place of employment. Were it more conveniently located, even a harried parent might have a shot at the occasional lunchtime gallery talk. But the Museum’s location precludes any chance at spontaneity: it's like a grand personage whom one can see only by appointment. You have to plan in advance and make an effort if you want to go to the Israel Museum.

Of course, the renovation was not meant to address the Museum’s location. Nobody thought of moving it to a part of town where it might be part of an interesting mix of uses, or be easily reached by people pursuing their everyday activities. No one wants to acknowledge that putting a major cultural institution on an isolated hilltop was a dumb idea. One could argue that moving the Museum would be impracticable at this point; yet one can’t help lamenting the single-use mindset that keeps us from arranging things effectively. The prevailing view in these parts seems to be that major museums need to be segregated in a specific of town, as with the planned removal of Jerusalem’s Natural History Museum from its longtime home in the German Colony -- near the shopping and eatery hub of Emek Refaim -- to  Kiryat HaLe’om. We also seem to think that a national museum has to be located in a national “precinct,” in deference to the Washingtonian model (and in contrast to, for instance, the Parisian model). There are indeed hopes of transforming Kiryat HaLe’om into something more than it now is. Anything would be an improvement -- even the current plans for  a local equivalent of Washington D.C.'s National Mall will surely produce something friendlier and more attractive than what currently exists. But will this be enough to bring the Israel Museum into the "city" -- to turn it into a destination for short, spontaneous visits as well as extended, pre-planned ones? That seems unlikely.

The original, American, National Mall is not generally thought of as a successful urban space. A lively debate is still going on about how to improve it; at the same time, no one appears to think the area can be turned into an exemplar of Jane Jacobs-style mixed-used urbanism. The best that seems to be hoped for is that specific portions of the Mall will be fixed up to make them more hospitable. So how optimistic can one be regarding Jerusalem's Kiryat HaLe'om? About a year ago I shared my concerns about how removing all government offices from Jerusalem's "historic downtown" would affect that part of the city -- turning it into a tourist-oriented Disneyland whose traditional, human-scale architecture houses pubs and cafes but little else of substance. The flip side of that is Kiryat HaLe'om -- a government-institution and national-monument enclave whose hypertrophic buildings are separated by lots of what Nathan Lewis would call Green Space. The public request for proposals that was issued in 2010 for the transformation of Jerusalem's Kiryat HaLe'om into a "central place in the life of the city" appears, on the surface, to encompass and link quite a few disparate elements ("culture, sports, leisure and recreation, tourist attractions, and events of a ceremonial, official, social and political character"). But does this really amount to a healthy mix of uses? Where's the (affordable) housing? Where's the (affordable, non-elitist) shopping?

I'm no urban fortune-teller; my crystal ball doesn't give me an entirely clear view of how the Municipality's visions of a lively pedestrian-oriented urban boulevard on Derech Ruppin will play out with Kiryat HaLe'om's existing and future iconic, monumental structures. But the plan for a new Museum of Natural History building, to be situated near the Bloomfield Science Museum, gives us more than a hint. In a Haaretz article, architect Gabi Schwartz, one of the winners of the Museum's planning competition, essentially ridicules the Jerusalem Municipality's hopes for urban vibrancy in Kiryat HaLe'om, remarking that the area is altogether chaotic and that the buildings in the vicinity do not "relate" to each other: "We felt that the battle here had already pretty much been lost, and we decided it was more important to preserve the site's green character." Haaretz reporter Noam Dvir goes on to note that the proposed building "presents no meaningful frontage to the surrounding streets, but rather retreats inward and entrenches itself underground. The main entrance from the Museum Boulevard is relatively obscure and situated in the shadow of one of the galleries."

That so major a project could have been awarded to an architect who publicly mocks the Municipality's hopes for urbanizing the area, speaks volumes about the future of Kiryat HaLe’om. The aforementioned Haaretz article notes that the planning competition's second- and third-place winners made more of an effort to relate to the urban fabric, meaning that the anti-urban choice must have been a deliberate one. One can't help but see parallels with the Israel Museum: a renewal plan by James Ingo Freed that (whatever its drawbacks) apparently encompassed a number of pro-urban and pro-human features was proposed in the late 1990s, only to be rejected following an outcry by Israel's architecture community -- which felt that it "dishonored" Alfred Mansfeld's original sprawling, user-hostile design. The renewal plan that was ultimately adopted -- the work of Efrat-Kowaski Architects and James Carpenter Design Associates -- both accommodates/reinforces the Museum's non-urban setting at the macro level and, at the micro level, perpetuates and sanctifies the campus' interior disunities and inhumanenesses.

The Israel Museum renewal

The renovation does seem to have pleased nearly all those charged with reviewing it in the media (with the exception of Esther Zandberg who fearlessly declares the emperor to be naked). The New York Times liked it, the Jerusalem Post liked it, Haaretz liked it. It is noted with satisfaction in these and other venues that you can now get to the collection wings via a climate-controlled passageway rather than facing the elements above ground. But is this really a cause for celebration? What are we ultimately left with? I'll summarize (to some degree merely echoing Zandberg, though with some added observations):
  • There is a new “entrance compound” at the “front” of the Museum which does not welcome the visitor or signal to him in an orderly, unambiguous way that he has arrived at a major cultural venue; what one sees on one's approach are a couple of banal, boxy structures (resembling oversized utility cabinets) of unclear identity. The slightly larger box is the Museum shop or "retail pavilion", while the smaller one is the actual entrance pavilion, marked by a sign so unobtrusive that many visitors who arrive by bus surely turn toward the store before noticing their error. Visitors who arrive by car (presumably the vast majority) reach the store before they reach the entrance. Given the outcry provoked by the supposedly "mall-like" character of the earlier renewal plan's entrance area, it's hard to understand how so prominent a placement could have been accorded to the retail pavilion in the later plan. The Freed plan was also excoriated for the "grotesque," pseudo-Biblical character of its entrance pavilion, which apparently featured gilded cupolas and was dubbed "the Altar." Are the current entrance structures, which aimed for "modesty," preferable? I guess one person's utility closet is another's "modesty." Or is it?
  • The same old sun-baked surface parking lot is there -- hardly a beloved feature of the Museum in its pre-renewal state. Museum Director James Snyder found that it would be "not pleasant" to enter the Museum from an underground garage. I suppose he finds the above-ground parking lot pleasant.
  • The Museum proper is still linked to the entrance area by passageways that more compact and human-friendly design would have rendered unnecessary. Mansfeld's original tiered open-air path -- the Carter Promenade --  is as shadeless and unforgiving of human physical frailty as I remember it, while the below-grade "Route of Passage" is an over-long, under-activated, sterile space whose most engaging feature is the little green golf-cart that plies its way to and fro, awaiting people with certifiable mobility challenges to transport from one end of the passage to the next. Car dependency, anyone? There's not much on display in the passage, though it's hard to imagine this being due to a paucity of displayable items. I guess the stark greyness of the tunnel is meant to render the headache induced by Olafur Eliasson's psychadelic "rainbow" at the end of it all the more intense.
  • Weirder still is the claustrophobia-inducing corridor that runs parallel to the Route of Passage -- essentially, a partitioning of the available space. Much high-flown language has been devoted to James Carpenter's "reinterpretation" of "the sensuality of narrow alleys and sunken oases by creating a defined arrangement of spatial experiences animated by phenomenal light." Apparently this rather traumatizing little alleyway was created so that the Route of Passage could be "fed natural light through prismatic glass and waterfalls."
    If this space is an example of good design, I can hardly imagine what might be considered to be bad design. Since when do architects go out of their way to create spaces that are unutilizable by humans and/or frightening to them? 
  • Campus grounds that are exceptionally -- almost spitefully -- inhospitable . Here we reach the crux of the matter:

Grounds for outrage: 

I don't expect instant perfection or magic bullets. I'm willing to accept that the Israel Museum will remain an isolated, car-oriented compound for some time to come. What really bothers me -- what prompted this critical post -- is the failure of the Museum's $100 million renewal project to turn the actual grounds of the Museum "campus" into a site that would serve its users -- local residents, foreign tourists, regular and infrequent visitors, individuals and families -- in a humane and dignified way. If the surrounding area has little potential for mixed-use urbanism in the foreseeable future, the Museum campus itself could have been made to provide a greater mix of uses to its visitors.

By "mix of uses" I don't mean that a full-fledged shopping center ought to have been erected at the site or, for that matter, a housing complex. On the other hand, a small convenience store where tourists who, say, run out of diapers for their babies might pick up an overpriced package of Huggies, wouldn’t be a bad idea. The unthinkability of adding such a minor amenity – one that would acknowledge the facility's geographic isolation and the human needs of its visitors – to the venerable Israel Museum campus, is itself a big problem. But what really bothers me is that the renovation did not try in any way to make a virtue of necessity -- to leverage the “campus” concept itself in the form of attractive, welcoming grounds where Museum visitors might relax, picnic, take breaks during their tour of the Museum, and generally enjoy a more leisurely experience of the place -- given the effort they have to make to get there and the lack of any other resources in the surrounding area.

The renovation's deficiency in this regard  is most clearly exemplified by a near-total absence of shade -- whether in the form of trees or of man-made canopies -- on the campus' extensive grounds. The very word "campus" conjures up leafy images, but the term that might best describe the Israel Museum campus on a summer's day is "sun-scorched:"

Shadeless path at the Israel Museum -- note the
"ornamental" stunted-bonzai olive trees that line the path

Well-hydrated "shrine"

Seating without shade

There is no excuse for this. The campus' various water features -- the dreary little pool at the entrance with the abstract sculpture inside it, looking like some kind of deconstructed Facebook symbol; the gurgling man-made stream that runs along the tiered open-air passageway between the Museum proper and the entrance area; the jets that continuously spray the Shrine of the Book and the "moat" surrounding the Shrine -- all of these things seem to mock the human visitor with their hints at coolness and refreshment. Perhaps the architectural statement made by the white dome of the Shrine and the contrasting black wall -- the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness imagery -- is thought to be enhanced by the glare; to this visitor, at least, the uncomfortable conditions in which one is meant to view the architecture are simply insulting. Children in particular are fascinated by the water jets and will stand gazing at them under the harsh sun for long periods until dragged away kicking and screaming.

Why can't one view the truly impressive and fascinating scale model of Second-Temple era Jerusalem in comfort? Must the model be displayed in the open air? Surely some kind of transparent dome could be erected that would cover it in natural-light conditions? Even if the open-air display has some justification, I can't understand why those who come to see it must be exposed to the elements. There are a couple of small canopies, but they are at an awkward distance from the model (which is itself gated off with a kind of buffer area). In actuality, everyone comes right up to the barrier despite the lack of shade, because they want to see the details:

Then there's the Museum's famed Billy Rose Art Garden. Like "campus," the word "garden" tends to elicit an expectation of greenery. But what is this "garden" but a series of sun-baked gravel expanses, like an almost-empty parking lot. Apparently there was a lot of space to fill up on the sprawling "campus" and not a lot of money for landscaping, so they made a kind of sensory desert punctuated by the occasional nature band-aid that -- as usual -- offers no shade:

Basically, if there happens to be a shady spot you can't sit there because there's no bench and they've made sure to put some ground cover around the tree that would be uncomfortable for a person to rest upon:

Whereas if there happens to be a bench, you can be sure there is no shade:

Of course, one would hope that an "art" garden would have some actual art in it.

Why, in short, could I not find, on my recent visit, a comfortable spot where my little daughter and I could eat the sandwiches we'd brought with us? It's hard not to feel offended by the sight of a museum restaurant's shaded outdoor dining area while one is engaged in a fruitless search for shelter. I personally witnessed a guard shooing away a visitor who, attempting to drink his mineral water in relative comfort, took refuge from the sun in a crevice of this apple core sculpture near one of the Museum's canopied eateries ...

Not everyone can find what they need in a museum cafeteria; not everyone's kids will sit still at a restaurant table; it can be a great hardship to have to stand on a long line with young children in a cafeteria; people have health issues, money issues, kashrut issues, etc. -- you can't expect every museum visitor to patronize a museum restaurant. A compound as isolated and self-contained as the Israel Museum can and ought to provide shade and comfortable seating -- at no extra cost! -- to those who make the effort to get there.

I can understand wanting visitors to patronize the Museum restaurants and souvenir shops; I can't understand the use of mall psychology to force them to do so. The feeling one gets is that the Museum management wants to herd you through the collections, the restaurants and the stores without letting you linger on the grounds -- just as in a shopping mall where there is nowhere to sit except in the food court! 

Perhaps the sprawl mentality of the Museum's original planners has evolved into mall mentality, where every space must be exploited to serve a commercial purpose. That would seem to be a logical progression. Is it unfair to slap a "suburban sprawl developer" label on Alfred Mansfeld? The claim is that he was inspired by the traditional Arab village -- that his white Modernist cubes were meant to hug the hill like village dwellings and to offer inspiring views of the surrounding landscape. It all sounds very high-minded  -- a cultural institution planned, in Zandberg's words, "on the principle of organic growth in the spirit of structuralist and cybernetic linguistic theories, which penetrated the architecture of the 1950s and 1960s. It is considered internationally a unique architectural experiment." But all I see is sprawl -- what many think of today as a failed experiment. A cultural institution that in its original state required visitors -- including disabled and elderly visitors -- to "climb a steep path under a strong summer sun or during chilly winter weather to get to the exhibition halls," and whose modular structures evolved into an unnavigable maze: did we really need it? Should we still be venerating it? Was all the effort and money spent on retaining the original idea worth it?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

An urbanist response to the recent tragedies

I respond to the recent cases of Forgotten Baby Syndrome in this piece for the Times of Israel.

It’s unfortunate that the recent, unbearably tragic, incidents of children being forgotten in cars and dying of heat stroke have not been linked to the social phenomenon of car dependence. This linkage needs to become a regular feature of public discourse regarding the place of the automobile in our lives and in our environment [...]

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Brooklyn nostalgia trip (not for hipsters) -- Part I

Let's take a Brooklyn break.
Brooklyn street box -- Kings Plaza mall
Let's take a break in southeast Brooklyn, where I grew up. A place where hipsters are apparently still few in number. No subway to take you directly to Manhattan; no sidewalk cafes. Some pretty awful, gentry-repellant features -- along with a surprising degree of compact walkability and urban amenity. The image at left might lead you to think the area is a wasteland, but the urbanism is there. The contrasts might possibly make the place more interesting than a Disneyland paradise of narrow streets.

The New York Times has characterized the non-gentrified parts of Brooklyn as either "rough-edged" or anachronistically suburban. Residents of the more  "suburban" areas are portrayed as reveling in an abundance of parking and as preferring "manicured lawns" to "reimagined 19th-century row houses." I'm by no means familiar with every part of Brooklyn -- gentrified or not -- but this suburban characterization of the borough's more outlying areas sounds inaccurate to me.

The neighborhoods that I want to focus on in this and a forthcoming companion post -- Old Mill Basin, Flatlands, Georgetown -- actually exhibit what I think is a rather unique mix of walk appeal and trashy sprawl, with the sprawl elements perhaps protecting the area as a whole from an undesirable socioeconomic "upgrade."

The residential construction in these parts -- dense without being overcrowded, consisting mainly of brick single-family and multifamily rowhouses and small wood frame homes on very modest plots -- could hardly be improved upon, as we'll see below. The commercial areas, by contrast, encompass everything from traditional shopping streets to hideous strip malls, to the windowless hulk of Kings Plaza. But however gargantuan their parking facilities may be, they are still easily accessible by public transit and get plenty of foot traffic from the locals living just across the "stroad."

What I want to convey in these posts are the contrasts and incongruities that make this part of Brooklyn liveable and loveable without being elitist. My "taking a break" idea reflects nostalgic promptings as well as an element of opportunism -- my brother happened to be in the area and took some nice photos, which I couldn't resist using (interspersed with a great many Google street views).  I'm also partly inspired here by the "traditional-city breaks" that form a part of Nathan Lewis' enlightening and entertaining Traditional City/Heroic Materialism archive. Now I know Lewis doesn't care much for Brooklyn, which he dismisses as a collection of 19th-century hypertrophic streets. He's certainly right about the excessive road widths; but my feeling, as someone who grew up in south southern Brooklyn and whose taste for walkable urbanism was formed there, is that you can, somehow, compartmentalize -- look past the hypertrophy and see an excellent housing stock, great connectivity, pleasant street environments, and, on the whole, superior conditions for car-free or car-lite living.

Maybe Kings Plaza and the strip malls lining Ralph Ave. should be filed under the rubric of "good enough urbanism." And maybe their very ugliness plays a role in ensuring that the area retains its heterogeneity!

I'm going to look at the housing styles of southeast Brooklyn in the present post, and (Gd willing) follow up with a discussion of the area's commercial development in a companion post. My idea, again, is that the housing in this part of the world fits the bill for compact-walkable urbanism; the shopping centers are car-oriented and vulgar; and yet the two formats somehow manage to work together.

Housing in Old Mill Basin and Flatlands

Brick rowhouses:

They may not date from the 19th century, they may not be brownstones, but they are rowhouses and they come in a variety of forms -- single-family, two- and three-family; equipped with rear alleys or front-loading garages (which, however, are relatively unobtrusive); presenting all sorts of variations on the front stoop/front porch/front patch of shrubbery theme (yet without over-large set-backs).

I'm going to display a few representative specmens, with comments to follow:

East 58th St. near Ave. J -- three-unit houses with front-loading garages
(Google street view)

E. 55th near Ave. O (Google street view)

Ave. T near E. 59th -- (attractive houses, over-wide road)

E. 52 near Ave. J -- rowhouses coexisting with other housing types  (Google street view)

E. 59th between O and T -- single-family rowhouses, no garages, rear alley for parking

E. 55th between J and K  (Google street view)
Avenue J near E. 51 -- The houses look tiny, but include small ground-floor rental units
(Google street view)

Here's what I like about the brick rowhouses:

1) Good enough density: I'm not interested in comparing the density delivered by this housing format with that of some mythical -- or real -- skyscraper city. What's nice about this part of Brooklyn is the implicit understanding, embodied in the built environment, that you have to quit while you're ahead. You have block after block here defined by solid walls of housing, with very little wasted space. You can fit a lot of people into this kind of housing, without making them too uncomfortable.

2) Heterogeneity: The fact that there is a mix of single- and multifamily dwellings means that people of widely-varying economic circumstances, age levels and personal/familial statuses can all live in the same neighborhood, and enjoy the same street environment, as well as the same local services, amenities and shopping facilities. The brick rowhouse is an especially democratic form of housing, in that its multifamily and single-family incarnations don't look too different from each other. Basically, it's all just the same wall of houses, plus or minus a storey, with small stylistic variations. The rowhouse is a great leveler: it blurs socioeconomic distinctions and provides less affluent people with living conditions that are almost identical to those of their better-off neighbors. The owner/landlord of a multifamily rowhouse gets to enjoy a small backyard and the convenience of a garage for his vehicle. The tenant, who might be living just upstairs from the landlord in virtually the same apartment, lacks a backyard and a designated parking spot; but he does get to enjoy residing on the same attractive and people-friendly street, in the same pleasant and safe neighborhood as his landlord, despite his inability to afford a home of his own. He might not need a parking spot because he might not own a car; in any case, he would certainly be able to get by without one in this transit- and shopping-rich area.

I'll illustrate the democratization point further by referring to my own personal experience: while I was growing up, my family (in various configurations) occupied no fewer than 4 of the houses pictured above. We owned a single-family rowhouse while my parents were married, then rented a series of apartments in multi-family rowhouses after they divorced -- first a small ground-level apartment (with entrance next to the garage) during the financially tight immediate post-divorce period, then a larger, upstairs apartment when things had stabilized. While all these upheavals were going on, I was able to attend the same school, keep all my friends, and still feel part of the same general neighborhood. That was a great advantage. Later on, as a young man in his twenties, working full-time and going to college part-time, my brother actually returned to this area and rented one of the small ground-floor apartments on his own. He just liked the neighborhood so much that it seemed natural to to him to return to it, even after the rest of the family had moved away.

2) No snouthouses! Note that many of these brick rowhouses come equipped with 1-car front-loading garages (as well as driveways that effectively provide additional private parking spaces). Note as well that these garages manage not to detract from the pleasantness of the building facades or kill the street atmosphere. The Old Urbanist blog has explored the question of whether townhouses and front-loading garages can work together -- here and here. I think these specimens hold their own alongside those featured in the Old Urbanist posts.

 Small single-family wooden frame houses:

These come  as fully detached houses or as semi-detached pairs, with small front yards, small back yards, and narrow paths (often used as driveways) between them. They are older than the brick rowhouses and, while I was growing up, were thought to be an inferior, less prestigious form of housing. Archie Bunker's house (in Queens) is of this type, reinforcing the blue-collar image. Not having spent much time in the area since the early 1990s, I'm not sure this class distinction still exists -- though the Google street views do show quite a few American flags (perhaps denoting military service or political affiliation?) on the porches of these houses, a sight that is uncommon on the brick rowhouse streets. 

I always had a regard for these dwellings and enjoyed walking along the streets lined with them, even when they were thought (by some) to be disreputable. They vary the scene by breaking up the blocks of brick rowhouses, and by displaying a certain diversity of color, facade, etc. I don't think this is the phony kind of diversity that you have in suburban tract housing. The idea is that the houses all work together to form a complete street environment (just as the brick rowhouses do). They are modest in size, the spaces between them are small, and they create the desired "outdoor room" or enclosure effect that is thought to be essential to the pedestrian experience.

Representative samples:

East 53rd near Ave. O (Google street view)
E. 57th near Ave. O -- jazzing things up with partial brick veneer ( Google street view)

E. 53rd near Ave. S -- co-existing with brick rowhouses ( Google street view)
E. 61st near Ave. T -- small stylistic variations (Google street view)

Mill Ave. and Ralph -- American flags

It's interesting to compare the street environment yielded by these single-family wooden frame houses of Old Mill Basin with the single-family homes that line the streets of "new" Mill Basin -- an enclave that, unlike Old Mill Basin, does fit the New York Times label of "suburbia:" 

E. 64th St. near Mayfair Drive South, suburban Mill Basin
(Google street view)

E. 66th St., suburban Mill Basin (Google street view)
The NYT article linked to above doesn't distinguish between Old and "new" Mill Basin, but when it talks about a "zone of lawn mowers" and a "country club’s worth of swimming pools," it's referring to the newer area that juts into Jamaica Bay and was "whipped up from scratch" by engineers -- not to nearby Old Mill Basin with its more traditional street grid and architectural style.

Why do these two latter photos from "new" Mill Basin scream Suburbia, while the preceding ones from Old Mill Basin don't (and I've deliberately steered clear of the McMansions that have recently replaced many of the original "new" Mill Basin houses)? These aren't huge houses, and the garages don't protrude for a snouthouse effect. The setbacks of the "new" Mill Basin houses aren't any larger than those of the classic Old Mill Basin houses, the spaces between them aren't much larger, and they display similar slight variations of color, window and porch style, etc. Why do these suburban-Mill Basin homes have such a solitary, every-man-for-himself feel? Why, taken together, do they produce monotony rather than harmony? Even as a teenager, visiting friends in "new" Mill Basin, I could tell the difference between this much more expensive/upscale area and the area where I lived, and preferred my own area.

Old Mill Basin/Flatlands housing styles -- subjective/emotional response:

Why do the unglamorous street scenes of Old Mill Basin and Flatlands tug at the heart? (And I believe they could tug at anyone's heart, not just the heart of someone who grew up there.)

Modesty. Simplicity. Staying within bounds. Small parts making up a whole that is greater than the sum. Being separate -- together. Everybody having their own bit of privacy and comfort, that do not come at anybody else's expense. 

These, in my subjective estimation, are the values embodied in the housing styles of Old Mill Basin and Flatlands, and are what give these neighborhoods their peculiar charm. Living within limits, when translated into architecture, apparently has aesthetic merit. Making the most of available space, "a place for everything, and everything in its place." 

Walking these streets -- or even looking at them via Google street view -- is at once restful and stimulating. Simplicity is pretty, and fun.

Charles Siegel's Politics of Simple Living connects traditional neighborhood design with precisely these values of simple living. 

I'll leave the reader with just one more Google street view that shows how these tranquil, walkable streets coexist with elements of autocentrism and sprawl, in anticipation of Brooklyn nostalgia trip -- Part II:

View of Kings Plaza Lowe's shopping mall, E. 55th St. intersection
(Google street view)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Jerusalem’s Newest Tourist Attraction: Open-Air Escalators in Har Homa

For several years now, Jerusalem’s Har Homa neighborhood has been the test site for an innovative form of underground garbage dumpster. Recently, however, the Municipality announced that Har Homa will be the venue for a somewhat more glamorous initiative: a system of open-air escalators. If all goes according to plan, the escalators will function as a public transportation mode, help residents cope with the neighborhood’s difficult topography, and attract tourists.

Har Homa’s residents – like those of other hilly Jerusalem neighborhoods – are all too aware of the mobility problems occasioned by steep inclines. Although a healthy adult with time to spare might, with only a little huffing and puffing, be able to climb the hundreds of outdoor stairs by which streets are typically connected in these neighborhoods, such is not the case for senior citizens, people with disabilities, mothers with young children in tow, and those faced with time constraints (such as parents who need to get their children to school or kindergarten before proceeding to their workplaces).

One of Har Homa's many "extreme" staircases
Up to now, Har Homa residents have dealt with this problem by using their private cars to get to and from most, or all, local destinations. In accordance with current planning rules, all neighborhood buildings were designed with hefty amounts of off-street parking. As a result, local households have found it convenient to own two cars, and sometimes more. The availability of these vehicles has made it possible for Har Homa residents to get to neighborhood supermarkets, groceries, health clinics, kindergartens, schools, synagogues, beauty parlors, pizza parlors, candy stores, the community center, and all other local destinations without having to climb endless stairs, or take heartbreakingly circuitous detours on foot in order to avoid the stairs.

Unfortunately, the minimum parking requirements, while ostensibly solving problems of local mobility and access, have created their own issues: horrendous traffic in the areas surrounding the neighborhood’s educational institutions and shopping centers, a Wild-West attitude toward parking, air pollution, excessively wide roads, unsafe and unpleasant conditions for pedestrians, and exceptionally unattractive architecture due to the need to house vast numbers of automobiles. All of things are inconsistent with current municipal policy, which seeks to promote walkability and public transit use, and to reduce car dependency to the extent possible.

Enter the Municipality's newest initiative, to be implemented in the coming months: the installation of a state-of-the-art open-air escalator system to supplement Har Homa’s network of outdoor staircases – and, in some instances, to replace those staircases.

Medellin escalator, courtesy of DaniBlanchette, Flickr
Outdoor escalators are operated in quite a few cities around the world, Barcelona and Hong Kong among them. Over the past few years, particular interest has been generated by the impressive system installed in Comuna 13, one of Medellín, Colombia's poorest neighborhoods, whose topography greatly resembles that of Jerusalem’s Har Homa. Unlike Har Homa residents, however, the denizens of Medellín’s most notorious slum have no private cars available to them, and until recently were forced to use stairs equal in number to those of a 28-story building in order to reach the city’s employment and commercial centers. The escalator system, like the cable car system that also serves as a mode of public transit in Medellín, is a social-justice project aimed at improving local residents’ living conditions, connecting them to the city and to jobs, and setting real social change in motion. The success of these initiatives earned Medellín the title of Innovative City of the Year for 2013 (beating out Tel Aviv, which placed second).

One may ask: why is the status of a third-world city such as Medellín relevant to our discussion of a Jerusalem neighborhood, most of whose residents fall somewhere along the middle-class spectrum and own private automobiles that give them mobility both within the neighborhood and outside it?

We posed this question to Deputy Mayor Ruth Sela, holder of the Jerusalem Municipality’s planning and environment portfolios, during a joint interview with her fellow deputy mayor, Gabi Ganon.

Sela: “We need to stop viewing the private car as the default solution to every transport situation, and as a symbol of status and luxury. The private car is simply destroying our built environment, and our health along with it. The present municipal leadership is an enlightened one that wants to advance sustainability and promote public health, and the car dependency that currently prevails in Jerusalem’s peripheral neighborhoods is inconsistent with that approach.

“After all, we’ve turned Jaffa Road into the country’s longest and most attractive pedestrian mall. You can’t go anywhere near the center of town nowadays with a private car, and over the coming years this trend will only intensify. Pretty soon there will be almost nowhere in Jerusalem to take a car to, or park one in – except the peripheral ‘residential’ neighborhoods! So it makes sense to implement our policy in these neighborhoods as well. Rather than each family owning multiple vehicles just so they can get to destinations within the neighborhood, we’re going to enable them to get to those destinations on foot, and to give up at least one family car.”

But, despite what you’ve said about Jerusalem’s core areas becoming increasingly car-hostile, the residents of Har Homa still need to use their cars to get to jobs and shopping centers outside the neighborhood, in the absence of any viable alternative.

Sela: “Of course we can’t hope to advance the escalator project and promote ‘car divestment’ without drastically improving public transit service to the neighborhood. The frequency of the bus lines that serve Har Homa will be increased to every 10 minutes rather than every 20 (or more) – constituting true ‘rapid bus service.’ We’ll also be annulling the parking minimums for residential construction, so it will be a lot harder to own more than one family car.”

Cancelling the parking minimums will surely be an unpopular move. People might start asking whether the Municipality isn’t intervening inappropriately in residents’ lives. If Jerusalemites have grown accustomed to using their cars for every out-of-home excursion, and if they enjoy the feeling of status and power that it gives them, why ruin it for them?

Sela: “Look, as a public official I have to think, and also act, with my constituents’ long-term interests in view – even if that entails decisions that are unpopular in the short run. The prevailing lifestyle in Har Homa and in Jerusalem’s other peripheral neighborhoods is simply unsustainable and unhealthy. The impoverished residents of Medellín’s worst slum are now benefiting from a neighborhood infrastructure that facilitates walking; they will neither want nor need private cars even once their economic status improves. They’re going to stay trim and fit, while the relatively affluent residents of Har Homa will be quivering gelatinous masses. You know, rumors have got round to us in the Municipality that Har Homa residents like to tie their garbage bags to their car antennas and drive with them to the garbage dumpsters located just a few meters from each building. It’s this kind of behavior that I, as a public official, feel obligated to address.”

That does still have overtones of ‘Big Brother’.

Sela: Hey, Mayor Bloomberg of New York City looks out for his public in just the same way – he takes things even farther. Go into a New York restaurant and open the menu – you’ll find that every item has a calorie estimate next to it. Bloomberg’s even trying to prohibit the sale of sweetened beverages in the city, as a public health measure.”

That particular effort hasn't succeeded. It was thought to be too intrusive – and that’s just what people are liable to think about your attempt to separate Jerusalemites from their cars.

Sela: “The escalator project – and the sustainability considerations that lie behind it – are issues of urban and transport planning that fall within the purview of a municipal authority. Not only that, but the question of the automobile’s place in the urban environment is absolutely one that municipalities should be facing up to and answering.”

At this point in the interview signs of impatience could be discerned in the facial expressions and body language of Deputy Mayor Gabi Ganon, who up to now had maintained a polite silence.

Ganon: “With all due respect to my colleague and to her concern for sustainability and public health, I have to take issue with the idea that environmental and health concerns are what ultimately set the escalator project in motion.

“The current municipal leadership is a proudly capitalist one, and it’s not reasonable for the Municipality to undertake projects of this magnitude just to make residents happy and ensure their physical fitness. We’re not a welfare state anymore.

“An initiative has to be potentially profitable – otherwise, how can we fund it? How would we raise the funds for an infrastructural project as complex as the Har Homa escalators?”

Indeed, we were planning to ask just that question. How will the Municipality be paying for the construction and operation of the escalators?

Ganon: “This is the good part. The Municipality won’t be spending a penny of its own money. And it won’t have to go schnorring, either. Two worthy and committed Jews, one Israeli and one from the Diaspora – with the means and the desire to benefit both the city and themselves – will be investing in the project and, in time, will receive an impressive return on their investment.”

How will they get a ‘return’ on a project whose main purpose is to advance the public good, not to generate income? Will users have to pay a toll?

Ganon [chuckling]: “No, no, no toll. It’s an interesting idea, but probably not practicable. No, there are other ways to make money off a project.

“Look, the concept of ‘the public good’ has passed its expiration date – it belongs to the socialist era. Today’s philanthropists have learned this very well. They’ve reached the conclusion – and this is very consistent with Jewish tradition, by the way – that the highest form of charity is enabling others to earn a living, not just to throw money at them. And this is where the escalators fit in. The environmental and health benefits will essentially be by-products. The escalators’ real function is to be a tourist attraction, like the ones in Hong Kong, which upgraded a topographically problematic area and turned it into a vibrant, sought-after commercial quarter! The same thing will happen in Har Homa. You’ve got wonderful views of Bethlehem there – Christian tourists will come in droves, once the proper investment has been made. We might even put in a cable car system to run between Har Homa and Bethlehem, like the one we’re planning to operate between the Old City and the Khan Theater. Kevin Bermeister, the escalator’s main financer (along with Erel Margalit), will buy one of the neighborhood’s residential towers and turn it into a swanky hotel, Erel will open a few non-kosher restaurants, and everybody will profit. It’s a slam dunk!”

What -- drab, monotonous Har Homa, with its endless vistas of ground-level garages, is going to become a tourist destination?

Hong Kong (covered) escalators --
 courtesy of Maucaine via Wikipedia
Ganon: “Why not? They predicted at first that the Hong Kong escalators would be a total failure, but the novelty attracted people and led to the opening of innumerable businesses, shops and restaurants, situated mainly at the escalator system’s entry and exit points. A form of ‘transit-oriented development,’ if you will. Regarding Har Homa, we’ll soften the regulations so that the garages of the residential buildings can be converted into commercial spaces. There’ll be boutiques, cafés and pubs at the ground level of the buildings.”

Sounds like science fiction. But to what degree is this really agreeable to the residents themselves? Maybe they don’t want a pub at the ground level of every building? After all, it’s a neighborhood consisting mainly of young families, most of them religiously observant to some degree or other.

Ganon: “Look, a pub on the ground floor is a negligible price to pay compared with all the money that’s going to be flowing into the neighborhood -- money that will make it possible to provide Har Homa with all of the municipal services that are currently lacking there – a library, a well-baby clinic equal to the patient load, shade structures in the playgrounds, kindergarten buildings and synagogues in accordance with demand, development and maintenance of green spaces. The Municipality will finally agree to take responsibility for all those areas that have been left in Construction Ministry limbo. All the problems that the folks in Har Homa are constantly whining about will finally be resolved!”

Wait a minute – shouldn’t the neighborhood be getting all these services anyway, in return for the arnona [municipal property tax] that the residents pay?

Ganon: Don’t make me laugh. Did you really think residents are entitled to something in return for their arnona? Arnona barely covers garbage pick-up, after you take into account all the other really important things the Municipality has to finance with its limited resources. New sports and entertainment arenas that overrun their original budgets by a hundred million shekels, for instance. And let's not forget cool events like the Formula 1 road show planned for next month. With stuff like that going on, is it any wonder there's no money left for neighborhood libraries? The peripheral neighborhoods need to stop asking what the city can do for them, and start asking what they can do for the city -- then maybe they'll get somewhere."

But does Jerusalem really need yet another tourist destination? Aren’t the Old City and the revitalized downtown enough?

Ganon: “Decentralization and breaking up monopolies -- that's the name of the game. Why shouldn’t other neighborhoods enter the tourism market? Healthy competition between neighborhoods will ensure optimal delivery of tourism experiences to all those who visit the city – that is, to all customers purchasing the Jerusalem ‘product.’ Basically, I want to do in the urban arena what my brother did in the cellular one – open things up to competition. Besides, we’ve come to realize that the Old City and downtown Jerusalem simply won’t be able to handle the load once we reach ten million and more tourists per year. These areas have no carrying capacity. You throw two falafel wrappers on the ground and the city’s filthy.

“We need neighborhoods like Har Homa to take up the slack.”

*Note: The above is, of course, a satirical piece; the author hopes that no one will attribute the "interview" statements to any actual Jerusalem deputy mayors, past or present. The "interview" merely aims to take to their logical conclusion certain ideas that have gained currency in recent years, and to provoke thought.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Some more unasked questions about the Begin Expressway Extension

Begin South Extension (simulation: J'lm Municipality)
In my last post I looked at the Begin extension from the perspective of the south Jerusalem neighborhoods and suburbs that it is meant to serve. I asked whether the extension would ultimately enhance the livability of these neighborhoods (Gilo in particular).  I took it upon myself to pose this question because I had noticed, with frustration, that the media were paying attention solely to the Beit Safafa side of the affair, and were completely ignoring the extension's potential impact on all other parts of town. I'm still frustrated. Here are a few more questions that no one seems to be asking:

In what way will the extended (and widened) Begin Expressway be exempt from the phenomenon of induced demand?

"Say goodbye to traffic jams!" rhapsodizes an unnamed author in the Jerusalem Municipality's online magazine, with regard to the Begin extension. The extension is meant to replace the route currently traveled by residents of Gilo, Har Homa and Gush Etzion on their way to the Begin entry point at Golomb St.; part of it will run as a tunnel under Dov Yosef Road, constituting, in effect, an expansion of current roadway capacity (beyond the recent lane addition to an already-existing segment of the expressway). One must ask (and the answer is pretty obvious): has the planning echelon taken into account the well-known phenomenon by which such capacity expansion "provides smaller net benefits than is often recognized, due to the effects of generated traffic?" Has it tried to envision the potentially greater congestion that a lengthened and expanded Begin Expressway is likely to produce, precisely because it will encourage more driving around town? Has it, in short, paid any attention to the considerable body of research showing that highways "that were supposed to handle projected demand for decades became congested in just a few years, because of the traffic that they themselves generated?" In its eagerness to move as many south-Jerusalemites to the opposite end of town as possible, like so many pawns across a chessboard, has the Municipality considered any alternatives to highway extension and widening? Better public transit, say? or more efficient use of land resources so that south Jerusalemites might have jobs, services, amenities and shopping available closer to home, thereby obviating the need for cross-town travel?

Where are all the cars going to park once they get there?

Anyone who has been driving in Jerusalem over the past decade has witnessed a tremendous reduction in the amount of parking space available (relative to the ever-greater number of cars on the road) in pretty much any part of town that is worth going to. Many parking spaces that were once free are now paid spaces -- a positive development in terms of discouraging private car use and fostering the use of other modes. Given this situation, one can hardly help wondering why the Municipality would be actively encouraging south Jerusalemites to come downtown every day in their cars. I doubt that the 1,300-space park-and-ride garage planned for the future highrise office complex at the city's western entrance will be able to accommodate them all. Surely some of those spaces will be needed for the Tel Avivians who will be converging en masse to do business in Jerusalem's shiny new CBD. (Presumably not all of them will be enlightened enough to ride the future high-speed railway from TA to Jerusalem -- especially once Highway 1, the road connecting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, has been widened). In all seriousness, if the Municipality is touting the transit connectivity of its envisioned CBD, shouldn't it be prioritizing transit options, rather than private-vehicle access, to that CBD from all parts of town? Why are the residents of Gilo, Har Homa, the Gush Etzion suburbs, etc., being excluded, by implication, from the city's great transit revolution? Why would they want to use the light rail line that is being planned for Derech Hevron if they are being provided with direct entry to Jerusalem's premier automobile artery? And if the lack of parking in town is ultimately going to deter them from using their cars, why do they need the Begin extension in the first place?

How will the Begin extension affect the Malha area?

This question presupposes that the area around the Malha Mall, Teddy Stadium and Malha Technology Park is a public space like any other, with potential for fine-grained urban development encompassing a variety of uses, including residential, and a variety of building types. This premise, however, is by no means self-evident to the Jerusalem Municipality, which appears to regard the area as a dead space waiting to be fashioned into a network of roads (what little of it has not already been given over to roads), the better to service one of the many mega-projects it has going around town -- the Jerusalem Arena.

Self-contained complex with tons of parking:
the planned Jerusalem Arena
(simulation via J'lm Municipality)
The question of whether the Jerusalem Arena is truly an economic-engine-in-the-making, or a boondoggle of cataclysmic proportions, deserves a post of its own, if not a public commission of inquiry. The fact that the project's cost was underestimated by NIS 120 million and that funding for "other projects in the city, including youth centers, [elder] services, and neighborhood sports complexes" has, consequently, been diverted to it, does not necessarily reflect on its potential value -- though the worth of such projects has indeed been called into question for decades by economists (“If you want to inject money into the local economy, it would be better to drop it from a helicopter than invest it in a new ballpark”).

Of course it's hard to discuss transport-related decisions separately from decisions about land use, since the two topics are intimately connected. Suffice it to say that a municipality that insists on erecting self-contained, single-use complexes in Malha (a mall, an office park, a stadium, and now a sports-and-entertainment arena) could hardly be expected to treat the land surrounding these distinct compounds as the future site of bustling, human-scaled streets where Jerusalemites might live, work, play and socialize in a variety of settings.

Town planner Gerard Heumann has noted that "At Malha, a shopping center, sports stadium, technology park and residential neighborhood were designed as if each existed on separate planets. Not a single building in the technology park bounds adjacent roads, not even opposite the shopping center, where a golden opportunity existed for the design of valuable commercial space at ground level." It's not that the Municipality has something against valuable commercial space; it's that the Municipality is incapable of conceiving that, outside of its beloved "historic downtown," anyone would want to move around such spaces on foot.

Will the infrastructure for Begin Expressway South, which will cut across Malha with "service roads" for the mall and stadium, enhance the Malha area's urban values, or utterly destroy them?
Haaretz reporter Nir Hasson asserts that "The Begin Highway does not cut through Beit Hakerem or any other neighborhood in Jerusalem. It delimits Jewish neighborhoods but cuts the Palestinian neighborhoods to pieces.” To cut through an existing neighborhood is a sad thing; but to keep existing neighborhoods from expanding because their boundaries have been artificially "delimited" by a highway is also sad. It is sad to think about the Malha that will never be -- the intensively-developed, lively mixed-use area that might have connected organically with the Katamonim, with the residential part of today's Malha and. indeed, with Beit Safafa; that might have enmeshed the mall, the office park and the stadium within a viable urban fabric.

And now for a few final questions:

Where is Jerusalem's urbanist community on this issue? Why isn't it making itself heard? And why is Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur -- who has recently and publicly criticized Israel's infatuation with the automobile -- pretending that the Begin Extension is just a  logical and necessary component of Jerusalem's municipal transportation master plan ?