Bad City Planning is a BFD AKA Don’t Build A Mall There

Realistic look at city planning challenges

I know that we live in a nation in which taxes going to the unemployed and “death panels” are grave fears held large swaths of the population, but in reality regulation should have a place in the hearts of even the most fiscally conservative/greedy when to comes to city planning decisions. It doesn’t, of course, but, it ought to.

When I was younger my neighborhood in New York went from being a quiet parking lot-filled flea market to the home of multiple corporate large-scale rental apartment buildings. The construction took years – years during which my entire family was woken up at 7am sharp by bulldozers, jackhammers, and the overwhelming smell of diesel. Permanently tired from the early wake-up calls and annoyed by how ugly the neighborhood was becoming, I used to often ask my mother, “Will we ever be able to get rid of these?” in reference to the crudely designed towers blocking out increasing amounts of our sunlight and air. I mean, what were we going to do with them after the real estate boom ended (it always does)? This was before 9/11, when wondering about this sort of thing was allowed.

Apparently,a lot of Americans, urban and suburban alike, are asking similar questions in reference to their own neighborhoods. Recently the New York Times ran two articles that examined the fallout of poor public planning in two drastically different realms. The first was about malls (my favorite topic), specifically dead malls; the other about a failed city housing project that was famously destroyed , questioning the impact its monolithic architecture had on it’s lack of success. Basically, these articles discuss two of the most egregious and widespread city planning blunders of the past 50 years. Because I am on a personal mission to make sure that every person in America thinks twice before building something ugly and/or generic, I thought I would present them for your viewing pleasure.

How About Gardening or Golfing at the Mall?
(If you are interested, also see 101 Uses For A Deserted Mall)

(C) New York Times

These pieces answer the question I used to ask my mother about what to do with spent architecture that you cannot take down. The answer: you repurpose it.

Anybody who has been in a car on a road in the last 20 years is familiar with the common sight of the suburban dead mall. If you read my earlier piece about the history of malls, you’ll learn all about why so many exist (it had to do with taxes and greed). Apparently the problem is now big enough to warrant a solution, and some places have innovative answers – from creating indoor gardens to building entertainment centers out of mall shells. These creative solutions wont un-destroy the planet or un-sprawl your city but, some of them will un-destroy your community.

The other thing that happens to poor urban planning situations, of course, is large-scale demolition. This is exceedingly rare, but it happened to the famously vice-filled Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis:

Towers of Dreams: One Ended in Nightmare

(c) New York Times

Pruitt-Igoe was a disaster now used by critics to dissect why mid-century style housing projects were such a stupid idea. In stark contrast to modernist expectations, the classic brick-surrounded-by-parks development basically isolated and incubated all of the problems facing the area. Eventually, there was no way for St. Louis to keep a lid on things.

This Times article compares Pruitt-Igoe to a more successful (in that it is not a sight of major urban blight or currently destroyed) project that features the same ugly monolithic architecture, Penn South, to examine what part the modernist architecture played in P-I’s demise and how much of it’s demise can be chalked up to architecture. I grew up next to Penn South, and it may not surprise you to find that I have some thoughts about this comparison and one of the points this article ultimately makes – that neither people nor architecture were really to blame for what happened to P-I. I get the people part, but I still blame the design.

The differences between Penn South and Pruitt-Igoe are quite glaring. Penn South was build by the Garment Workers Union and has always been solidly middle class. To this day, in fact, Penn South has charming qualities that would have thoroughly tickled its modernist designers. Qualities like bird sounds and old men playing checkers in the park. It also has one mysteriously curvy street for people that are into that sort of thing.

Penn South

Still, I take issue with using Penn South as the model of a “functional” planned community . Even with the benefits it provides to old people, who so outnumber everybody else that they can demand targeted services, I think it succeeds despite its architecture and that “success” is a tricky term in this circumstance anyway. From my perspective, Penn South’s architecture has been highly destructive to the neighborhood’s development and sense of community.

The problem started back in a less wealthy Manhattan, when the non-Penn South population of northern Chelsea was made up of urban pioneers in loft conversion buildings. At this time, the “middle class” neighborhood could not produce a functional school or support services like grocery stores. Basically, Penn South’s tower behemoths and grassy private parks isolated other Chelsea residents from each other, making it nearly impossible to create a strong, unified, community voice. Instead, for all functional purposes, local residents lived in two smaller neighborhoods that were separated by Penn South. The complex acted as an impenetrable border with its long streets, large private parks and dark, unpopulated sidewalks.

As a result of their isolation, Chelsea residents faced a slew of annoying problems in recent decades. Problems, in fact, that are ultimately problems for Penn South too. “West Chelsea” continues to have a massive club presence to contend with. Eastern Chelsea has had unregulated construction, its own spate of club problems, and a lack of representation at the state level. These two neighborhoods are mere blocks from each other, but there has been quite a bit of tension between the two as they have competed for the attention of public officials while grappling with their isolated issues. To this day they do not share much in the way of interests or, ultimately, a desire to work together. In layman’s terms, it’s a clusterfuck.

I think the point this article misses, ultimately, is that Penn South will never be “functional” of its own accord. It will only be able to succeed despite its architecture. Even if things are working out for now, it is not worth letting the architecture off the hook. The results for Chelsea have been to the detriment of everybody in the area, residents of the complex included. After all, they spent just as many years living in an empty, struggling neighborhood as the rest of us. But I guess, for the moment, we have to live with Penn South and be thankful that it is not Pruitt-Igoe.

Anyway, my point is that I hate seeing apologist articles about poor ugly design is blameless in its negative impact on communities. Giant rotting warehouse-like shells near ugly brick towers surrounded by unused grassland is not good for children and other living things.

Why?

Because here is the problem with building something necessary and/or poorly designed: once it’s up, you never get rid of it. Right, St. Louis? What’s going on at Pruitt-Igoe now? An empty dirt lot? Just don’t build a mall there.

Grumpy tidings,

-Lila

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