the urban prospector

Searching for Golden Opportunities in America's Cities


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A City is a Machine for Creating Networks.

IMG_5835-sHow can someone determine whether or not a use is good for an urban setting? What makes one use better than another? Is this simply an issue of preference, or is there a framework of analysis that can be used to make this determination?

Urban areas are incredibly important. They are hubs of commerce, culture and knowledge. Throughout history, vibrant cities haven’t simply been a hub for one or the other, but rather they tend to come together. Ancient Greece contained several bustling harbor cities with traders coming from across the Mediterranean; markets full of goods and throngs of customers. Greece was also the site of the greatest learning and knowledge; discoveries included the Pythagorean Theorem and the first calculation of the diameter of the Earth. Simultaneously there was also a great amount of literature and drama, including the Iliad and the Odyssey. Continue reading

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Small Storefronts Result in Resilient Retail

This shop is the result of a combination of two pre-existing retail spaces. If this store falls on hard times, it can shrink into one half of the space leaving another small storefront available for a new tenant.

This shop is the result of a combination of two pre-existing retail spaces (notice the structural support running down the middle of the store). If this store falls on hard times, it can shrink into one half of the space leaving another small storefront available for a new tenant.

With the current recovery and reurbanization of the US, there is a lot of construction in old industrial cities and suburbs that are looking to be more dense and walkable. As can be seen in places like Jersey City, the retail component of these buildings often involves larger spaces. This poses a challenge because it sets a higher threshold that a business has to cross before it can afford to rent the space. It is much cheaper to rent 500 square feet than 1000 square feet. There are two problems that result from this. First, there is a smaller pool of businesses that can afford to rent such a place. Typically these are larger more established companies and often are larger chains. Secondly, these larger spaces make it more difficult for a new company to get a foothold in the market. Continue reading


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Flemington’s Stangl Factory Forges a New Creative Economy

IMG_4827cFor Valentines Day I took Cailie out to Western Nj. It had been a while since we had done any exploring and I figured this would be a good time to go for a random drive around NJ. We first stopped at T.M. Ward, a great coffee retailer and institution in Newark. While Cailie ran in to get some coffee and peanut butter, I quickly looked through google maps to find a destination: Flemington it was.

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Rural Decline or Rural Urbanism

Downtown Hesperia showing its rural decline.

Downtown Hesperia showing its rural decline.

Cailie and I headed back to my hometown of Grand Rapids, MI to visit my family for the holidays. While we were there, I decided to take her through some of the small towns in Northern Michigan and out to the lake (I almost said shore which certainly shows the effect of living in NJ). We stopped in the towns of Newaygo and Hesperia. Newaygo (pop 1,976) is a 45 minute drive outside of Grand Rapids. It has a commercial strip along and an industrial park near the intersection of two state highways. Down the hill, in the Muskegon River Valley, are a series of grain silos, a rail line and the historic downtown. The downtown has a couple of restaurants, antique shops and its own beef jerky shop. Given the urban amenities along with  great outdoors opportunities including hunting, canoeing, fishing and boating, Newaygo is a very cool town. Hesperia (pop 954) on the other hand is not. Hesperia has many of the same outdoor opportunities as in Newaygo, but is in much worse condition. In this town, the main street is lined with vacant commercial buildings. A grocery store and post office seem to be doing well, but everything else about the town seems to be in a state of decay. Continue reading


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Victory Against Surface Parking Lots in Newark

Members of PLUG celebrate victory at the Newark Zoning Board of Adjustment

Members of PLUG celebrate victory at the Newark Zoning Board of Adjustment

On Thursday November 13th, the Newark Zoning Board of Adjustment stopped (at least for the time being) the continued spread of surface lots in the Ironbound. A property owner wanted to convert his parcel near Penn Station into a surface parking lot and required a D Use Variance. This variance was denied by a unanimous vote of the 7 of 9 board members present. This decision is the culmination of a process that started in February. Opposition was led by the Planning Land Use Group (PLUG) of which I am a member. 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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Can the Vancouver Style fix Newark’s Parking Crater?

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

Urban Cul-De-Sacs

The southern section of River Drive in Jersey City has towers clustered around auto oriented cul-de-sacs.

The southern section of River Drive in Jersey City has towers clustered around auto oriented cul-de-sacs.

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. Continue reading