the urban prospector

Searching for Golden Opportunities in America's Cities


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In Defense of Public Land

Carrizo Peak

Lincoln National Forest: Carrizo Peak rises from the Tularosa Basin.

This weekend 150 armed militia members have occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in Oregon operated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. This armed occupation was in response to the incarceration of two individuals convicted of arson for fires they started that damaged public land in 2001 and 2006; one of which burned 139 acres. This is another in a long string of attacks on the concept of public land. Similar issues (and people) were involved in the standoff at the Bundy Ranch in 2014 where Cliven Bundy had been involved in a decades long legal dispute regarding unpermitted grazing on public land. This attack on public land has been seen in the past few national elections with Republican candidates decrying the oppressive federal government and its ownership of land. While there are many out there who hate the idea of public land, public land is a good thing. Continue reading

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Better Block Newark

IMG_6348This Saturday, the City of Newark hosted an event, Better Block Newark, on Bergen Street between Lyons and Lehigh Avenues in the South Ward. This event was inspired by the Build a Better Block events that have been happening across the country. For those who have not yet heard of the Build a Better Block, it started in Dallas where several community organizers set up temporary improvements to the Oak Cliff neighborhood. Improvements included street scape, street crossings, a median created by placement of planters, and pop up shops. They took over a couple of lanes on West Davis Street and instead of the normal flow of traffic, created bike lanes and sidewalk cafes. It was a low cost and guerrilla style approach to neighborhood improvement. It has since launched similar project across the globe. Here in Newark, thanks to the work of the city’s planning department, it has landed in the Weequahic neighborhood. Continue reading


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Vertical Farming: A Great Idea Goes Too Far

Taking factory farming to another level.

Taking factory farming to another level.

In my last blog post I explained my opposition to urban farming. To sum it up in less than 1300 words, our food distribution system is relatively efficient with the greatest inefficiencies existing in the last mile of transportation, industrial agriculture takes up too much land and in urban areas, that land is better used for dense urban development.

This vertical farm in Vancouver shows the increased efficiency of vertical farming. (Image from vancouverfoodster.com)

This vertical farm in Vancouver shows the increased efficiency of vertical farming.
(Image from vancouverfoodster.com)

Vertical farming has the potential to remove the need for large amounts of land, which would change one of the key points in my opposition against urban agriculture. So what do I think of vertical farming? Vertical farming is a troubled concept, a combination of innovative genius and maniacal stupidity. This duality results from the fact that vertical farming isn’t very well defined. The concept is great, but there are those who want to take the concept beyond the limits of reality. Continue reading


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Plan for Replacement

One of the several small shops next to available space in the Grand Rapids Downtown Market. The ability to rent kitchen space as well as retail space as small as 100 square feet is allowing new companies to be created.

One of the several small shops next to available space in the Grand Rapids Downtown Market. The ability to rent kitchen space as well as retail space as small as 100 square feet is allowing new companies to be created.

Everything comes to an end. The dinosaurs of the Jurassic, the Pony Express, Google, and even the chair I’m sitting on either have or will come to an end; if I do not have a replacement for my chair when its time is up, I will be left sitting uncomfortably on the floor. Organizations will falter. Businesses, no matter how well run, will at some point in time fail. Bands will break up. Even the most powerful and respected organizations will at some time cease to exist. Atrophy is universal. In the long run, preservation will not work: the only long term strategy is replacement.

While replacement has different requirements depending on what needs to be replaced, it is almost always an incremental process. Multi-national corporations do not appear overnight. Bands, even the most corporately devised, have small beginnings. Effective community organizations take years to grow into an established force. Rather than focusing on creating large existing organizations, there needs to be a focus on creating the right conditions for small organizations to emerge and organize. The best way to do this is to remove barriers to entry.  Barriers to entry, is defined by Investopedia as “The existence of high start-up costs or other obstacles that prevent new competitors from easily entering an industry or area of business.” Barriers to entry can be removed or lessened in many different ways. Continue reading


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Newark: Enlarged Parking Crater or Value Creation

Parking TradeoffFor the past few weeks, I have been working with the Planning and Land Use Group (PLUG), which is a group of planners, architects, and activists living in the Ironbound and Newark, in a fight against the continued sprawl of parking in this city. As the 2012 Master Plan notes, there is over 20 acres of parking surrounding Penn Station, which happens to be the best connected transit hub in New Jersey as well as the primary entrance to downtown Newark from transit. Unfortunately this acreage is expanding like a cancer on the city. A new parking lot in the Ironbound was approved in 2012 (though that decision is under appeal) and the Zoning Board was hearing an application to convert an old industrial site into another surface parking lot. Continue reading


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Downtown Development Lessons from Jersey City

As I’ve said before, I feel that the prospects for renewed development in downtown Newark are fairly high. This wouldn’t be the first city in New Jersey to go through a period of massive development in recent times. Two PATH Train stops to the East is Jersey City. Here, on land previously dominated by rail yards serving New York City, new towers have been going up. While there are some developments that do very well in terms of creating a pedestrian friendly public realm, the buildings along Christopher Columbus Drive unfortunately do not. If Newark is not careful, developers may repeat these mistakes. Unfortunately many of these mistakes will leave a multi-decade legacy. Newark cannot afford to make such costly mistakes. From my walks around this area, I think there are four lessons that can be learned from these developments. These lessons can be applied in Newark and any other urban area.

Buildings should front directly on to pedestrian space

One Evertrust Plaza does its best to keep people away by being set back from the street and separated by a fence.

One Evertrust Plaza does its best to keep people away by being set back from the street and separated by a fence.

One Evertrust Plaza at the corner of Christopher Columbus Drive and Washington Street is a great example of this problem. The 17 story high-rise is separated from the street by large swaths of grass, some parking and what appears to be a 5 foot tall fence. Fortunately this building does not include parking underneath. If that was the case, the pedestrian entrance would be largely ornamental. An entire block in this superbly transit accessible neighborhood is completely devoid of street activities. It is possible to cut this building some slack; it was built in 1986, at a time where the developers can claim they didn’t know any better. Ultimately, the one message that One Evertrust Plaza gets across is, “Stay away!” Fortunately, this appears to be a correctable mistake. The first floor of the high-rise could be converted to pedestrian oriented activities, the fences could be removed and the excess space could be redeveloped. The space between the building and the intersection of Christopher Columbus and Washington could hypothetically become a well activated pedestrian plaza. Continue reading


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Newark: The streets of Downtown

Broad Street near Military Park looking north.

Broad Street near Military Park looking north.

A major task that the city of Newark will have to undertake to improve its downtown area is to make streets more pedestrian friendly. Currently, walking around downtown, the dominance of the automobile is easily felt. Roads like McCarter Highway allow large volumes of autos to travel through the city while making a dangerous crossing for pedestrians. Cars here are so dominant that the cross walks don’t even turn to walk unless someone pushes a button. 6 lanes of traffic turn Market Street into a cluster of traffic, parked cars and buses. Perhaps most absurdly, Park Place has three lanes of traffic and two lanes of parking on a short street that borders Military Park. After spending $3 million on a Bryant Park inspired renovation, and dealing with historical preservation challenges, the park is still separated from the city by a large street. In the case of Park Place, this is an unjustifiably large street. Not every street in downtown can become as pedestrian friendly as Halsey Street, but there is still a lot of work that can be done. Continue reading