Ironies of Highest and Best Use

I went to the Roslindale Square/Village RMV to convert my NY license to a MA one yesterday. While I successfully converted the license, the trip was a pain because a) I was available to do it because I was home sick from work and b) the RMV has clearly not learned the lesson I keep tweeting at transit agencies, that inaccurate real-time estimates are worse than none at all (I was given an estimate of zero wait and ended up being there for 45 minutes, standing the whole time in a room that was incredibly hot and smelled strongly of pot and people). It did, however, give me a chance to check out the area some, and in particular (the exterior of) a building I had wanted to see, the former Boston Elevated Railway Company substation at the corner of Washington Street and Cummins Highway.

A substation, you might think, would be a boring and utilitarian building. Not so! Remnants of traction systems past–and there are many, since the power systems (as opposed to the tracks) tended to be heavily built–were in fact often elaborate in design and construction.

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The Roslindale Substation, from Adams Park across the street.

The Roslindale substation features beautiful brick construction and high, arching windows; while it’s clearly a building with an industrial history, it’s the furthest thing from today’s functional but ugly boxes. Most interestingly, perhaps, the substation occupies a place of honor and importance in Roslindale, at the intersection of two busy streets (and transit corridors) and in the absolute center of the neighborhood.

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On the one hand, this makes sense, since several trolley routes historically converged at this corner, as seen in a 1936 map:

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On the other hand, it seems like placing a substation–as opposed to, say, storefronts–on such an important corner would have been a terrible violation of the zoning/real estate principle of highest and best use, although it should be said that the substation was built in 1911, before zoning swept America. To a certain extent, surely, the substation’s location was the product of a disconnect between transportation and land use; from their own perspective, it made perfect sense for BERy to place it there in 1911. And for much of the building’s history, demand for land in Roslindale Square was relatively low; it was, after all, vacant for 45 years, until just this year. But–and here’s the irony the title of this piece refers to–the area is now somewhat up-and-coming, and the substation is now in the process of being converted to commercial use (an already-open craft beer store and a restaurant to be called the Third Rail), with the remainder of the lot taken up by new apartments. As the planner’s proverb that I just made up goes, every lot finds its highest and best use, sometimes it just takes 106 years.

Interestingly, much the same story unfolds just a few miles down Washington Street toward downtown Boston, with BERy’s former Egleston Square substation.

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Like Roslindale Square, Egleston Square historically represented the convergence of several transit lines, and was thus a logical place to put a substation. Unlike the Roslindale substation, this one served both streetcars and the Elevated, and thus remained in service until the closure of the latter in 1987. Like its more southerly counterpart, though, it fell into abandonment and ruin thereafter, until being resuscitated in 2008 to serve as the studios of Boston Neighborhood Network Television. As you can see from the Streetview capture above, the building is a remarkable contrast to the low-slung, suburban-style Walgreens next door–the high-quality architecture of a century ago continuing to pay dividends. While Egleston Square as a whole is not the world’s most urban-feeling built environment, the substation should–after nearly a century of life as an industrial building–be able to help anchor its rebirth in its new role.

If there’s a point to this post, other than that people do interesting things with old trolley substations, it’s that good architecture endures and tends to lend itself to a positive use in the long run. Like life, land-use dynamics are unpredictable and changeable, which is (part of) why locking uses and styles forever, as American zoning slanted toward single-family uses typically does, is a bad idea. Did the architects who designed the Egleston and Roslindale substations in 1909 and 1911 ever imagine the buildings being adaptively reused for another purposes? Unlikely, although they were clearly built to last. This is not to say that every abandoned building can or should be reused, but it’s a useful reminder of the way demand for land can change over the course of a century. And who knows? The Go Boston 2030 transportation plan, released just today, calls for rapid bus lines to pass both substations. Though they’ll most likely never power trolleys again, both substations could again serve an important transit-oriented use (as they do relative to local bus service today), as attractions drawing people to their neighborhoods along the transit corridors of the 21st century.

 

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Notes on Central Florida

I spent last week on vacation in the exurbs of Orlando (well, really Kissimmee) with my partner’s extended family. Since theme parks are, well, really not my thing, I spent a decent amount of time thinking about the planning and urbanist implications of an area that I found frankly fairly miserable from a built environment perspective. I don’t so much have an overarching argument here as a series of notes on a few things I found interesting.

Pod-based building

We were based at a resort called the Vacation Village at Parkway, off the arterial Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway (US 192) west of downtown Kissimmee. In many ways, the sprawling urban form along that road is typical of suburban land use across the country, though perhaps in an exaggerated form. Developments occur in pods, completely disconnected from one another along property lines. Take, for example, this pathetic excuse for a pedestrian crossing from “our” resort to the strip mall and resort next door:

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Mind you, one has to traverse this after crossing four lanes and a median of road without a crosswalk of any sort.

The area in which our resort was located is also cut off from its surroundings in a more profound way. It shares a triangle of land with several other developments; the sides of the triangle are defined by I-4 on the west, Bonnet Creek on the east, and 192 on the south. But grid connections–and ways to exit–exist ONLY on the southern side, to 192.

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That turns what could be an easy stroll over to the as-the-crow-flies-neighboring Gaylord Palms into a 1.8-mile odyssey along high-speed arterials:

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such that Google Maps literally cannot calculate walking directions between the two. This area of Kissimmee is to the south of most of the major Orlando-area attractions, so this kind of thing also lengthens the (many) car trips taken between resorts and said attractions, resulting in even more congestion in an already congested region. It’s just thoughtless–and the result of a zoning regime that emphasizes massive parking lots and setback at the expense of all else, including common sense.

Latent demand for car-free vacations

Despite a built environment that seems to invite, or even mandate, car use at every opportunity, it’s clear to me that there is a latent demand for car-free travel from tourists that could be better met. Transit service in this part of Kissimmee is not completely hopeless, but it’s far from perfect. You can catch a bus to Lynx’s Kissimmee hub four times an hour from the corner of Irlo Bronson and Celebration Boulevard, and they’re even nicely spaced much of the time.  The bus stops are nice too:

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But service on one of the lines stops by 10 PM.

There’s also a whole network of resort-contracted shuttles that ferry people to and from theme parks, shopping, and entertainment. The vaguely vintage-styled coaches of Disney’s Magical Express, connecting their resorts to the airport, were ubiquitous on the highways, for example. Vacation Village provides shuttles to theme parks, as well as more local destinations.

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At the same time, the entire built environment–from single-use zoning to massive setbacks to street and grid geometry–basically mandates car use for the vast majority of trips. I’ve spent more of my life in sprawly suburbia than I really would like, but I got a sense for a latent demand for less autocentricity here more than anywhere else.

Celebration is…Weird

Vacation Village is basically across the street from Disney’s much-debated attempt at New Urbanism. Celebration occupies a bizarre place on all kinds of spectra: more small town than suburb, more private than public, kind of an independent governmental entity but not entirely. I didn’t spend much time there (really just one lunch that was mostly spoiled by rain), but it’s…weird. The built environment blows most of the rest of Central Florida out of the water just by dint of having been thought through even a little bit, but the materials used in the construction of the buildings doesn’t really seem much better than your typical suburb; I saw a lot of sagging gutters and cheap-looking vinyl siding. The main street, such as it is, is touristy but reasonably nice; parking is tucked behind the buildings per standard New Urbanist practice, but it’s still abundant and free. Though not a grid, the street geometry makes more sense than most suburbs. A couple of things jumped out at me, though. This is the main drag carrying cars into Celebration, creatively named Celebration Avenue:

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The speed limit drops to 25 mph as soon as you enter the residential part of Celebration–which is nice–but it struck me that despite a nice, wide ROW Celebration Avenue still has very wide travel lanes (much wider than one would expect for a 25 mph speed limit), and no provision for bike lanes.

The other thing that struck me about Celebration? It has zero transit.

Oh, sure, Lynx’s #56 circles through the much more suburb-y single-use commercial section ever half an hour:

But that’s, like, really far from the commercial and residential parts of Celebration:

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Celebration is better than other suburbs, sure, but it’s hard for me to accept the word “urbanist” anywhere in proximity to an area that entirely lacks transit service. I suspect the omission is intentional; simply because of the quality of design, Celebration is extremely expensive, and places like that tend not to welcome transit. Do better.

Toll Roads

I don’t want to comment on this too much without reading up more on the background of transportation planning in Central Florida, but the prevalence of toll roads was a common topic of discussion among the extended family. Certainly, it’s annoying that Florida’s extensive toll road network doesn’t accept the EZPass technology common in other parts of the country; outsiders get fleeced by paying higher tolls, in cash. The tolls didn’t seem especially high but the frequency of booths seems potentially counterproductive. I do wonder if a willingness to toll the roads has led to overbuilding of the network, since they may be less of a drag on gas tax revenues and the general fund.

The Great Sucking Sound

We had an enjoyable side trip to Lake Wales, FL, where my grandfather grew up and my great-grandparents and a great-aunt are buried. It’s a very pretty area made famous by the Bok Tower Gardens, but it’s also a struggling agricultural region whose citrus industry–Florida’s Natural is headquartered in Lake Wales–is not exactly at its peak of glory. Consequentially, downtown Lake Wales is struggling to a certain extent. As elsewhere in the country, that struggle is exacerbated by sprawl, particularly the sucking of retail out to low-rent districts on suburban arterials. 6-lane US 27 is the main north-south artery along the Lake Wales Ridge, and it’s characterized by on-and-off clusters of commercial development that become more consistent as one drives north, approaching the Orlando metro. Just outside of Lake Wales, however, the Eagle Ridge Mall stands virtually alone, isolated among cow pastures and citrus groves.

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It’s precisely this kind of thing that kills the functional downtowns smaller towns like Lake Wales need to survive in 2016. And the mall’s 20-year history is full of sinkholes and bankruptcies, so it’s not like the competition is going anyone any favors. The mall’s struggles are likely due to its odd, middle-of-nowhere location (I suspect it was placed so as to draw from both Lake Wales and nearby Winter Haven, but it seems to be doing neither). It’s the kind of sloppy economic development and land use policy that has landed so many places like Lake Wales in trouble.

They Paved Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot

More than anything else, this is the overwhelming experience of Central Florida:

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Just out the back door of our building at the resort. 

That’s a high-rise looming out of a wetlands, which is cynically preserved to be pretty at right. Just beyond the fence, there’s a short drop to very muddy and wet land; the entire building must be built on a slab of concrete or else it would sink into the muck. It’s hard to go anywhere in the area without thinking of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.”  Florida’s selling point is, to a large extent, its spectacular natural environment; but its growth as a tourist and retirement destination has been largely premised on the destruction of that environment. I’m hardly the first to point out that paradox, and as someone with training in archaeology, I recognize that destruction is sometimes inevitable. But my overwhelming takeaway from this trip is that there’s a lot of opportunity to just correct things that are sloppy, should political and public will exist. Or, you know, maybe the whole state will just slide into the ocean. That’s always a possibility.

A Walk in the Neighborhood and Urban Albany

It’s drop-dead gorgeous out today, and Wednesday is my day off of classes, so it was time for a walk around the neighborhood. Since the sun is out (finally) I figured now would be a good time to showcase Albany a little bit and comment on some of the (positive and negative) aspects of urban design, planning, and urbanism in the downtown area. All pictures are taken within a mile of my apartment.

Tree budding, Hudson Ave. just east of Lark

Tree budding, Hudson Ave. just east of Lark

One of the the surprising things about Albany is that some of the monumental architecture can make it feel like a much bigger city than it really is (~97,000 people, down from a high of 135,000). Here the towers of the Empire State Plaza–the larger one, the Corning Tower, is 42 stories, and the Agency Buildings are about 20 stories shorter–pop up over the mid-rise apartment buildings occupying the valuable real estate adjacent to Washington Park as we look east down Hudson Avenue. The towers are cleverly tucked into the slope down to the Hudson so that their full height isn’t apparent, but they do put the low-rise Center Square neighborhood into perspective.

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Olmstedian (though not designed by Olmsted himself) Washington Park is one of the true joys of living in downtown Albany. Here, the sun shines over the lake that is one of the park’s central features, and over the odd-duck Lake House (now mainly used as a theater), one of a very few Spanish Revival-styled buildings in the area.

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Who says modern builders can’t imitate historic styles? I don’t usually walk on the block of Madison between New Scotland and Robin, so while scooting by on the bus I’ve never actually noticed that this townhouse is a relatively recent fake:

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Albany has several other infill projects that are well-done imitations of historic styles; it’s something that the city does well. If that offers hope, turning the corner offers despair:

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This was really the point of my walk today. The Park South Urban Renewal Plan–yes, we still use that phrase here in Albany–driven by Albany Medical Center has (just since I moved here less than two years ago!) wiped out two whole blocks of homes to put up a new mixed-use development (but mainly just parking). Just months ago, this view would have looked like this:

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The plans certainly aren’t the worst, but they’re certainly not the most urban-feeling plans either. What makes the project–the beneficiary of state tax credits–particularly outrageous is that the enormous, 800-1000 car garage (the exact size seems to keep changing) you can see under construction in the picture above is completely unnecessary.

More garage, in case you weren't convinced enough of the scale.

More garage, in case you weren’t convinced enough of the scale.

Somehow, a single daffodil survives between concrete, construction materials, and insulation material that's been left out. It's almost TOO #$@#$ poetic.

Somehow, a single daffodil survives between concrete, construction materials, and insulation material that’s been left out. It’s almost TOO #$@#$ poetic.

 

No seriously, it's really huge.

No seriously, it’s really huge.

What was here before clearance? Nothing particularly special, a few low-rise middle-class homes:

Looking west on Dana about halfway between New Scotland and Robin

Looking west on Dana about halfway between New Scotland and Robin

The Park South neighborhood has been in a rut for a while; many of the houses, including the ones that have survived the renewal project, are in poor shape, and this was never an upper-class neighborhood to begin with. That being said, AMC owns much of the real estate in the area and has been patiently awaiting its opportunity at redevelopment. And major institutions, for-profit or not, that hold on to large swaths of land for a promise of future development over long periods of time are virtually never good stewards; if you haven’t read my early post on Chicago’s The Valley neighborhood, go do so. Granted, it’s an extreme example, but it’s illustrative of the dangers of long-term planning for megablock development.

We’ll close the tour with a picture of something more hopeful, a new mixed-use building (retail on the first floor and apartments above) on the corner of Lark, Delaware, and Madison.

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I could’ve gone with two or three more stories of apartments on top, but it’s certainly nothing to sniff at…and there’s no added parking! (the building will share with the condoized historic police station next door on Madison)

Amazing how many issues come up on a brief (1.5 miles total) stroll around the neighborhood sometimes.

Notes on Long Transit and Diagonal Streets

Between school, Passover, and life, I’ve been extremely short on time and (especially) focus to write recently (though I did do a Twitter series about Amtrak reform, Storified here), but I do want to get something up.

Jake Blumgart has a post in the Philly Voice about SEPTA’s fabled Route 23,  the former-trolley-now-bus that connects tony Chestnut Hill in the city’s Northwest with Center City and South Philadelphia. Route 23 has been acclaimed as the world’s longest trolley route, a claim I’m skeptical of, if only because Chicago’s Route 49 (Western Ave.) has run up to 20 miles at times. It’s also a flashpoint of the bus-trolley wars, with some romantics consistently calling for the return of the trolleys that were taken off the route in 1992 (much of the rail infrastructure remains in place). The problem is that, as Blumgart notes in his piece, “When trolleys rumbled along the 23, an end-to-end ride took more than three hours; the bus takes about half of that time.” (I believe that number is somewhat exaggerated–Blumgart got it from long-time riders of the route–but there’s little doubt that the trolleys were indeed slower than buses that can pull into and out of traffic)

Route 23 intrigues me because it combines two particular challenges of urban transportation planning: super-long mixed-traffic transit routes and diagonal streets that cut across the city grid.

Route 23 map from SEPTA's schedule packet--so long it needed to be split into two images!

Route 23 map from SEPTA’s schedule packet–so long it needed to be split into two images!

As you can see from the map, Route 23 runs largely in a two-way pairing on 11th and 12th Streets from its terminus in South Philadelphia through Center City, then switches onto the diagonal Germantown Avenue, running northwest to the tony Chestnut Hill neighborhood. The route is also very long for a local bus, almost 14 miles. As a result of the length and Philly’s notoriously narrow and congested streets, Route 23’s on-time performance in 2012 was only 64%, fairly atrocious by transit standards. As a result, SEPTA is considering splitting the historic route in two, with one branch running from Center City to Chestnut Hill and the other from Center City south. Since–as Blumgart documents–virtually no riders use the whole route, there seems to be little opposition to this change.

And that leads me to thinking about the viability of super-long local bus routes in other places. I used to commute on the Chicago Transit Authority’s #49 bus, the core service on Chicago’s uber-long (24ish miles) Western Avenue. Where Route 23 is scheduled to cover its 13.8 miles in about 1:15, for an average speed of roughly 11 mph, CTA’s 49 is even slower, scheduled to cover its 15.7 or so miles in 1:30, for an average speed just under 10.5 mph. Aside: this means that the CTA 49–which has, in the past, extended past its current terminal at Berwyn all the way to the Evanston Line, about 3 more miles–is both longer and slower than the much-maligned Route 23. Unsurprisingly, the 49 is a massively unreliable route, with bunching common. Since the cancellation of the former X49 limited a few years ago, it is the only transit option in the corridor, and one of the most popular routes in the city, carrying even more people than the 23.

The problem with the 49 is that, unlike the 23, there is no especially convenient place to split the route in the middle. I’m sure relatively few people ride the route from end to end, but there’s no point where the entire bus empties out and exits, as happens to the 23 in Center City. Additionally, I will personally testify that having more splits in the route would be a massive pain in the ass, since having to transfer from the 49A and 49B extensions to the core route in order to continue a linear journey is already a major problem. The 49’s reliability problems can’t be dealt with by cutting the route in half, so what options are left for the CTA and other operators faced with similar long-route challenges? (that’s a genuine question!)

The other thing that’s intriguing about Route 23, of course, is that its northern half runs along Germantown Avenue, a diagonal street that once connected that neighborhood to the Philly waterfront. Though Philly’s grid isn’t as regular as, say, Chicago’s, Germantown Ave. still stands out as an oddity on its generally northwest-southeast path.

Germantown Ave. highlighted, from Google Maps

Germantown Ave. highlighted, from Google Maps

Germantown Ave.’s odd alignment–and its Phillyish narrowness–makes it a challenge for fast, efficient transit–but an opportunity for other things, as James Kennedy of Transport Providence, a Philly native, pointed out:

This is a question that intrigues me, since Chicago’s notorious diagonal streets have proven to be a major challenge for traffic of all types in that city. Of course, Chicago’s diagonals are more regular, such that they often cross two other arterials in a nightmarish six-way intersection. Witness Lincoln, Damen, and Irving Park:

Or Lincoln, Ashland, and Belmont:

Among other terribleness, the new Google Maps is temperamental about embedding, so you get a JPEG for this one.

Among other terribleness, the new Google Maps is temperamental about embedding, so you get a JPEG for this one.

These intersections are horrible for pedestrians, create massive traffic jams, and just generally suck. And there’s not too much the city can do about them. The problems at the intersection of Damen, Fullerton, and Elston are so bad that the city is spending millions to realign the intersection, but low-value industrial land isn’t usually available to do that.

Chicago DOT's graphic explanation of the Damen-Elston-Fullerton realignment.

Chicago DOT’s graphic explanation of the Damen-Elston-Fullerton realignment.

Perhaps the boldest initiative Chicago has ever undertaken to tame one of its diagonals was the 1978 pedestrianization of a short stretch of Lincoln Avenue (no, not all of the horrible intersections involve Lincoln, but it does have many of them) southwest of the intersection with Lawrence and Western, creating the Lincoln Square (mostly) pedestrian mall, the core of one of the city’s hottest real estate markets:

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Perhaps the Lincoln Square mall has been buoyed (and to tell the truth, it hasn’t exactly been a smashing success) by being next to the busy Western Brown Line station. But it might also represent the potential of a new approach to those problematic diagonal streets. The luxury of a grid is that it often works best without diagonal streets cutting through it at angles that are either random (Germantown) or too regular (most of Chicago’s diagonals). Surely, the idea of making these streets into a transit, bike, and pedestrian mall is radical. But it may be a really good idea.