Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Downtown is Not in the Doldrums

IMG_0280 Ps CS3 copy by bhaskins1
IMG_0280 Ps CS3 copy, a photo by bhaskins1 on Flickr.
Don't read the news. The Business Weekly dedicated its front page to warn us that things aren't well in downtown. Tenants are just flying out of the crime-ridden, drug-infested, drunken slum. Apparently. Alright, I exaggerated a little but that's the gist of it.

However, for those following along, we've seen the area slowly add residential units and new businesses. Sure, there's been fits and starts - two steps forward and one back seems to be the trend. But at least there's progress. Somehow the Business Weekly missed the unveiling of the Railyards Master Plan. And if they had done a little more research and actually read the RFP that was issued by City for the grocery store, they would have noticed hundreds of proposed residential units. When I add up the units in their RFP, plus other projects I've heard mention of in the last few months, I estimate approximately 750 units either proposed or momentarily under construction. Add to that the upcoming redevelopment of the Convention Center and I challenge anyone that suggests downtown is failing.

The BW article also mentions that the Downtown Action Team is looking to renovate the 4th Street Pedestrian Mall. Apparently they are looking to reopen the street to vehicular traffic; one lane and along a curvy path. I'm not one for extensive public review and comment but shouldn't such a project be vetted, at least to some extent? Also, when did DAT become a design firm? While I agree that something needs to be done I'm unsure that they found THE solution. The first problem with the ped mall started when they closed the street. There's no arguing that. However, they added to its demise when they allowed restaurants to build patios above the pedestrian grade and with walls. Then they forced the restobars to add hockey rink-like plexiglass to keep alcohol from being exported beyond their premises. Internally, the pedestrian mall has elevated planting boxes through its median. All of these barriers add up to a piss poor pedestrian environment, where one can hardly see into the mall from Central (the main adjacent corridor) and once you're in, you feel very isolated given the dead pedestrian level frontages of adjacent buildings. Why don't they start by opening it back pedestrians, perhaps?

I've heard murmurs of a streetcar line being talked about within downtown. Knowing that BRT is slated for Central Ave, it would seem appropriate that a streetcar line would best compliment BRT by running perpendicular, connecting activity centers (Courthouse District, Casa District) in downtown to the BRT line. 4th Street is the no-brainer corridor for a streetcar given the already existent commercial corridor both north and south. (Imagine a streetcar that ran in a loop along 2nd and 4th, between Bridge and Mountain....yeah) I'd be quite upset to see DAT spend a heap of cash on a curvy road, which would either detract a streetcar or result in another expensive remodel of the street.

Perhaps they should scale back those plans and allocate funds toward projects that would have larger impacts such as adding bike lanes (protected, even), parklets, and doing some real marketing for downtown. Heck, let's start by getting the twinkle light parade back in the heart of the City.

Rest assured downtown Burqueñosos and fans, downtown is getting better and is on the verge of putting development into a higher gear.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Re-Imagining the Railyards Master Plan

First, I want to say that I am appalled by the lack of press that this has attracted. The railyards project is the largest such project that has been proposed by this City in years. Instead, the media continues to highlight the ills and negative aspects of everyday life.

With that said, I'll begin my critique by stating how refreshing it is to see bold, aggressive ideas proposed for the redevelopment of such magnificent structures. From the sweeping funnel/glass canopy that shields the primary promenade between the cathedral buildings, the reconstructed roundhouse turned performance space, to the Ponte Vecchio-esque bridge over the railroad tracks, this plan is nothing short of fascinating. 

But (yes, the requisite BUT), does the plan meet the needs of the neighborhood, the City, and make the best use of the whole space? 

I'll begin with the parking. The plan does an incredible job hiding the necessary parking that this project will need. I applaud Samitaur's balance between the necessary parking and the City's sometimes ridiculous requirements, particularly in activity centers. 

Housing. I am shocked that only up to 60 units were proposed. 30 had to be included as part of the scope. However, given the magnitude of the project and its projected high visibility and popularity, it would seem like hundreds of new units would not be out of the question. Granted, the current market would not support much aside from subsidized housing, but I can't help think that in 5-10 years, this project will begin to attract a new market segment further south from a projected growing downtown. 

Building renovations. While it is understandable that renovation of the historic structures will be expensive, I'd like to know that some of those buildings will be accessible to the public, whether in the form of an indoor/outdoor market, museum, or any other use. The buildings on the north side, as well as the south cathedral building (or part of it at the least) seem like obvious candidates. 

Open Space. This topic is my primary concern with the plan. This land represents the City's best opportunity to create a sizable, urban, vegetated open space for citizens. With such imposing, special structures on site and the state's only collection of high rises nearby to the north in downtown, this space begs to be a special gathering place for citizens and guests. What is planned to be a building with a rooftop plaza seems to almost meet this requirement. However, this city has plenty of hard-scaped plazas. The City was well off the mark when it redesigned Civic Plaza decades ago. The plan appears to replicate the uninhabitable space. Sure the views will be spectacular, but what we need is a grassy place to kick a soccer ball, throw a frisbee, read a book, and take part in the milieu that comes from urban open spaces. Given the incessant sun and summer heat, a rooftop plaza just doesn't fit the bill. Throw in some shade trees, cool grass, along with various sitting, observing, and comfortable socializing spaces surrounded by an inspiring built environment, and I'm in. 

Connectivity. I will say that I appreciate the undulating landforms that would allow visitors to walk around and upon the new and renovated spaces. The pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks is wonderful as well, taking something as iconic as the Ponte Vecchio bridge and giving it a modern twist. However, as currently planned, there may be too much of a good thing in terms of the undulating landforms. When approaching the railyards from the north, I enjoy the site of the mighty structures - from their foundations to their rooftops. Without a significant amount of water, those landforms will turn into brown mounds that will reduce the experience of the procession when moving south toward the majestic structures. 

I really think the designers need to consider moving the new office/support space that is slated to be under the plaza on the north side to the south end and simplify and/or downsize the programming at the north side. On the southside, perhaps some penetration of the existing streets into the site to weave the Barelas community into the fabric of the Railyards. Additional housing could help to blur the edge. The cultural space at the south end, while well conceived, would compete with a formidable institution nearby to the south. Perhaps re-imagining the roundhouse as something that is more mixed use, with offices, residential, and perhaps cultural would help to create an environment that is alive (dare I say vibrant?) for more than 9 hours, compared to the predominantly museum and office concept that is proposed.  

But that's just me. What do you think?