the urban prospector

Searching for Golden Opportunities in America's Cities

Breaking the Asylum

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There were a great number of horrible things done to cities in the 1950’s and 1960’s that today reverberate like hallucinations. In a rush to force space age modernist solutions onto cities, whole neighborhoods were destroyed. While almost every town has one such area, some places are truly exemplary. Albany, NY, is one such place. While Callie and I were on an anniversary trip in the Catskills, we decided to explore the state capitol of New York.

State Offices

Without consulting a map, I decided to get off of Eastbound Interstate 90 at the exit labeled “State Offices.” This sounded like a perfectly logical place to find the capitol building and downtown. Instead, it appears that a suburban office park was violently wedged into the city. This campus was designed like an airport with inbound and outbound loop taxiways leading to the runways (New York State Route 85 and Interstate 90). It felt like a quarantined prison. Streets approaching the development end abruptly without cul-de-sac, cut off by the outer security perimeter. Driving east over 85, we missed our turn and continued on the Campus Access Road (parallel to and only yards away from Brevator Street). Having briefly viewed a real neighborhood, we were quickly whisked back west. Rather than following this almost automated path, I turned around and was able to get on to Brevator Street and take Washington Ave into downtown.  Washington Ave is a typical urban street. It has a section with detached homes and a section with denser development. It has nicer neighborhoods and rougher neighborhoods. Nearing its end, it passes next to the beautiful New York State Capitol.

Empire State Plaza

It is at the capitol that another brutal assault on the city of Albany took place. While the New York State Capitol did survive, the neighborhood to the southwest was wiped off the map. In its place is the Empire State Plaza. Here modernist architecture was allowed to run amok. 4 smaller towers are lined up across a pool from the much taller corning tower. The swan street building is as friendly as a fortress wall, and given its location next to an old neighborhood, that may have been its purpose. And then there is the egg. The egg is a theatre shaped like the bottom half of an egg. This would work great as a sculpture so long as it was 1/100th the size. I’m sure it functions well as a theater, but it fails miserably as a piece of the urban environment. All combined, the result is buildings as objects in space rather than buildings that shape space. This is an area to be enjoyed from a distance and only experienced close up when bribed by a salary or forced during a school field trip. A key point of interest here are the four tunnels under the Plaza, two of which carry the South Mall Arterial and two of which are used for storage. Apparently the people of Albany came to their senses and prevented the complete decimation of their city. Original plans called for the South Mall Arterial to continue to the northwest to an underground interchange with the planned Mid-Crosstown Arterial. Fortunately the plans were cancelled. However that leaves the South Mall Arterial incomplete. Rather than simply weaving it into the fabric of the city, this road was designed with a u-turn built in at the end. If you are not paying attention, you will drive in under the Empire State Plaza, only to be turned back around and sent out of town. Once again, it has the feel of being in an asylum. The design goes out of its way to prevent interaction with the rest of the city or the people that live there.

Designed Separation

This skywalk was designed so that office workers in Newark would never have to deal with Newarkers.

This skywalk was designed so that office workers in Newark would never have to deal with Newarkers.

I think it is important to note that Albany isn’t the only place that has tried to cut off undesirable neighborhoods from urban renewal. Detroit’s Renaissance Center is practically a “Green Zone” in the city of Detroit. Cities like Minneapolis developed extensive skywalk systems in theory to avoid harsh winter weather, though with the effect of separating office workers from city residents, sometimes with negative side effects. This certainly is the case in Newark, where the skywalk system provided a sense of security after the riots. Camden, NJ creates the separation through the use of acres of parking lots separating downtown from the new waterfront developments. This urban separation isn’t only a thing of the past. In Grosse Pointe Park, MI, the town closed off a street leading into Detroit and replaced it with a farmers market. There is something terribly wrong when we treat neighborhoods and cities as something we need to barricade ourselves against. Isolating these neighborhoods doesn’t only create difficulties for their residents in terms of access to jobs and basic necessities, it also sends a message that they are no longer part of society, that their participation in civilization is no longer desired. This is disenfranchisement built in to the brick and mortar. Certainly cities have their problems, and this was particularly the case during the four decades following 1960. Nonetheless, we have an obligation to ensure that our society is welcoming of all residents and all voices.

Moving Forward

The era of tearing down whole neighborhoods in the name of progress is over. Although modernist architectural tendencies still exist as does an unreasonable admiration for Le Corbusier, the movement in urban design is decisively in the direction of human compatible architecture. The studies of William H. Whyte and Jan Gehl are informing design so that it is more interactive and engaging. A focus has returned to the pedestrian, the individual, and has moved away from the automobile. Cities are now seen as places to experience, not simply places to work before escaping back to the suburbs. Places that have turned their backs on cities are being re-integrated into city life. Unfortunately I don’t think there is much that can be done to make the Empire State Plaza more human friendly. On the design side, it shouldn’t be too hard; filler buildings with ground floor activities would go a long way. I suspect however, given the expensive materials used on the original design as well as the desire to preserve every architectural mistake through history, that changes will be politically infeasible.

As for the State Offices, plans have been on the table to redevelop the land. Over the 350 acres of land, much could be built. Plans before the housing crash in 2007 looked forward to integrating the land into the surrounding city, bringing in a mix of uses and getting rid of the perimeter road. Given the current market conditions, it is unlikely this will happen any time soon. That said, this could become a great neighborhood sometime in the future. Its close proximity to the SUNY campus would make this an ideal college neighborhood. It could also be a great place for new business hubs to take advantage of the knowledge pool at the university. If this development were to happen, it could create a great hub for improved transit connections downtown. A new streetcar/light rail system could run from downtown albany to SUNY and finally out to the airport.

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