Last week, I wrote about some pretty bad urban design developments in Jersey City. While looking at google maps, I noticed the development around the Newport PATH station and decided it would be worth exploring. I met my girlfriend Cailie at the PATH station to have a waterfront picnic as well as a chance to explore this recently developed urban neighborhood. During this time, I noticed several things
Along the southern section of River Drive, residential towers are clustered around cul-de-sacs. These cul-de-sacs offer building front drop-off and access to structured parking. In the middle of the cul-de-sacs are mini parks that offer seating for residents. At the entrance to the cul-de-sac is a wide gap between buildings and walking through one of these areas, one can tell that they were primarily designed for the automobile. Sidewalks are effectively cut off by entrances and exits to the garages. The wide entrances remove any sense of enclosure that is essential for good urban design. Along River Drive, these buildings offer ground level retail and restaurants, but in a disjointed fashion. It appears that this is an attempt to create a better pedestrian experience on River Drive, but unfortunately it fails at this goal.
A and B Streets
The northern section of River Drive follows a different design pattern. Here River Drive becomes a private street with a 10 mph speed limit. Conceptually, I do no like private streets: I would much prefer a street where constitutional freedoms apply. That said, I suspect the private designation allows for the speed limit to be so significantly reduced. At the southern end of this section is a great public space. There are benches and tables, sitable ledges and perhaps most importantly, a couple of elephant sculptures with water spouting out of the ground. Children were having fun playing with the water while parents looked on. Apparently, the area is designed to be flooded and turned into an ice rink in the winter. The rest of the block was lined with small shops occupying a small linear space. Nowhere along this stretch did I notice that cars were interfering with the public space or creating a disjointed urban environment. The reason that this section of River Drive could be such a great urban space was seen on North Boulevard. North Boulevard is the direct opposite of the northern section of River Drive. Here the street is an auto-sewer. The street is fronted with garage entrances, security doors and air vents. This ultimately is the flip side of the great development on River Drive.
While River Drive could be classified as an A street, North Boulevard is most definitely a B Street. The use of A streets and B streets is a design tool that allows for the creation of great urban streets by shifting the auto oriented uses onto another street. While shops and building entrances would be on an A street, parking lots and garbage areas would be on the B street. In a typical A-B street combination, there is the potential for redevelopment of the B street into an A street, but here in Newport, the land use is so intense that this will be highly unlikely.
Based on my wide international travels (exclusively in southern Ontario), it would seem that Newport was attempting to follow the Vancouver Style of building. The Vancouver Style has a few key elements. First, it has a low rise building that orients to the street on most if not all sides. Ideally the ground level has active uses such as stores or walk up residential condos. On top of the low rise base is a tower which boosts the density in the area. While this is typically what is discussed with the Vancouver Style, there is an additional element (one that seems to be a more recent development); auto uses are hidden. Often the building which is oriented to the street creates a doughnut. A small entrance into this doughnut allows cars to have access to structured or underground parking. While some of the gaps in the cul-de-sac part of River Drive were close to 200 feet wide, garage and garbage access for vehicles can be done in 40 feet. A 40 foot gap on one side of a building creates a much better urban space than a 200 foot gap. Hypothetically, such a building could be developed on a block 180 feet by 204 feet while keeping garage ramp grades set to 1:12 (assuming 10 foot floors for the structured parking).
How Newark Could Benefit From Vancouver Style
Currently, Newark has a glut of surface parking lots. This is one of the greatest killers of street life in the city. Newark noted in its 2012 Master Plan that there are over 20 acres of underutilized parcels within a half mile of Newark Penn, with the majority of this being used for parking. Just this year, the parking crater in Newark was a contender for Streetsblog’s Parking Madness. This is land that is prime for development. I used Google’s SketchUp to very quickly show what a potential development in this area could look like. For this development, I followed a couple of basic rules for simplicity, though a real development should have more variety than presented here. The rules are as follows:
- Blocks are lined with a 5 story building which has a width of 60 feet. (The 5 story building allows for cheaper construction with one floor of concrete block and 4 floors of wood frame construction on top)
- Blocks can have one or more 25 story towers which are 120 feet x 120 feet
- Blocks have a 40 foot wide auto access space to allow for parking entrance and garbage collection
- Where desirable, pedestrian streets are created to allow for easier walking
- Parking is assumed to be located underground (and highly reduced due to transit proximity and walkability)
- The first floor is used for retail (though this could be used for small walk-up offices
- Remaining floors are used for office space or residential units
- Residential units average 1000 square feet per unit
- Office space hosts one job per 190 square feet
- Retail space hosts one job per 475 square feet
If these blocks were developed in such a way, it would create 5.2 million square feet of building space. 450,000 square feet would be dedicated to retail/walk-up office. The remaining space would have the capacity to hold 4,764 residential units or 26,020 jobs. However, such a monoculture would make it difficult to have pedestrian traffic throughout the day, there should be a balance between the number of jobs and residential units. Assuming one residential unit per job, this development could have 4,155 residential units as well as 609,000 square feet of office space on top of the 450,000 square feet of retail/walk-up office. This development would create almost 10,000 feet (1.89 miles) of street front development, with only 280′ of street frontage sacrificed to the automobile (2.8%). The urban massing would allow for the activation of Green Street, Lafayette Street, Edison Place, Market Street, and Mulberry Street and would allow for the creation of a well framed public plaza in front of the Prudential Center. Details within the architectural design would determine whether or not this development actually promotes pedestrian activities. The design would have to ensure small storefronts with ground level entrances and incorporate details such as street trees and seating to ensure that this becomes a lively place. Nonetheless, there is great potential here to make a superb urban space. Though it would take years to complete, the amount of development pushing its way from New York City past Hoboken and Jersey City means that this sort of development could happen faster than many people realize. This is Newark’s chance to regain its past glory. If it fails to activate this parking crater and if any development that occurs does not promote pedestrian activity, it will have suffered a multi-decade setback.