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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Why I Oppose Urban Farming

This farm in Chicago could be put to a better use leading to a more environmentally friendly and energy efficient city. (picture from thegreenhorns.wordpress.com)

This farm in Chicago could be more environmentally friendly and energy efficient if the land was used for development.
(picture from thegreenhorns.wordpress.com)

It hit the news recently that a vertical farm is coming to the Ironbound. The City of Newark, RBH Group, AeroFarms and the Ironbound Community Corporation are working together to repurpose an industrial site next to the Ironbound Recreation Center into a 69,000 square foot vertical farm. I have mixed feelings about this project, which I will elaborate upon over the next few posts, but I like what’s been happening in Newark recently, I like the work that RBH Group has done here and have a lot of respect for the ICC (I worked out of their offices for about 10 months and they do a lot of great work from general social services to education to environmental protection).

I have a serious problem with urban agriculture. Just to clarify, I have no problem with urban gardening or community gardens. I would much prefer to see a personal garden than the traditional lawn and community gardens provide open space and help create a sense of communities in neighborhoods. My problem is with industrial scale agriculture in urban areas. With the exception of a handful of cities, such as Detroit, there are better uses for land than agriculture.

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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


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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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Urban Design in the Hudson Valley

Downtown Saugerties on a busy Saturday afternoon.

Downtown Saugerties on a busy Saturday afternoon.

Recently, my girlfriend and I took a trip up to the Catskill area of New York to attend her brother’s graduation. We stayed in Phoenicia and took some time to explore other nearby towns.

Phoenicia

Phoenicia (Pop 299) is a cute touristy town at the junction of the Stony Clove Creek with the Esopus Creek. This town suffered serious damage during Hurricane Irene in 2011. It has a nice main street, but doesn’t seem to maximize the benefit of its proximity to the creeks.

Saugerties

Saugerties (Pop 3,959) is located at the mouth of the Esopus Creek as it enters the Hudson River. This town has a much more developed downtown area. Shops are clustered on Partition Street and parts of Main Street. An overly wide and car-centric intersection at Market St. and Main St. cuts off a potential extension of this shopping district along Market Street. While it is not unsafe to walk to, the presence of parking lots at the intersection and the additional lane to accommodate higher speed turns creates the feeling that pedestrians are not welcome. Some traditional traffic calming measures in this intersection as well as a couple of pedestrian friendly buildings on the corners would improve the pedestrian atmosphere significantly and allow for this extension of the downtown area. A return to a pedestrian focus has already begun in Saugerties and can be seen in a great conversion of an old gas station/car service center into a restaurant. Continue reading


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Oakland: Adult Recess

Adult Recess at Ogawa PlazaWhile in Oakland, I stumbled upon Adult Recess in Ogawa Plaza. Ogawa Plaza, directly in front of Oakland City Hall, is a fairly well designed public space. There is a central amphitheater area with plenty of ledges for seating. While shade in this area is not abundant, the moderate temperatures of Oakland allow for a comfortable stay nonetheless. Other areas have many benches and even some shade trees. The plaza is well framed by neighboring buildings, many of which include restaurants or retail. These amenities both benefit from the plaza as well as bring people to the plaza. Continue reading