Lost in History, Vol. 30

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05/09/2007 12:00 AM |

Yes indeed, what does make a healthy downtown? A pertinent question for New Yorkers, now more so than ever. Everywhere you look is construction, renovation, building, rebuilding, and burly union men in hardhats and orange flak jackets. There are 16 acres at the World Trade Center site that are slowly, stodgily, infinitesimally progressing towards something resembling a functioning commercial hub; the city is tearing the shit out of Fulton Street and lower Broadway to create a transit hub; a secondary transit hub is happening down in Battery Park, merging three different lines and stations. And don’t get me started on the lux condo-ification of Manhattan, specifically in the financial district. But, is there a precedent to all this construction? How have other cities redeveloped their downtowns? We set out to glean some answers at a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council-sponsored roundtable discussion, held last night on the 60th floor of One Chase Manhattan Plaza.

The roundtable brought together five established city planners slash urban designers from Boston, Vancouver, Toronto, London and Singapore, and each had their own take, understandably, on how to redevelop a downtown. The difficulties, descriptions, conversations and conclusions were pretty fascinating, as each urban designer was adamant that their city, and their model for redevelopment was the de facto answer for cities that are, on the whole, organic and permutable creatures. David Emil, president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, moderated, and kept things from veering out of control, especially considering the presence of wild card Peter Rees, City Planning Officer for London since 1985, who started his description of London’s downtown with the memorable line “London has the best free sex in the world!” Rees then went on to explain that within London’s one square mile of commercial Downtown, you have 8,000 people living, 350,000 working, and a newly restored cultural and financial world that is mostly driven by testosterone and the allure of sex. On his watch, London’s downtown went from a 9-5 district to existing as a 24-hour commercial and cultural destination. “It’s not the same type of work in the morning as the evening, well, not yet at least.” Another notable quotable from the feisty Brit: “Families kill cities.” Rees then went on to detail how London’s downtown is not the place for children and strollers — it’s hardworking by day and hardpartying by night. Families belong in the residential parts of London, most certainly not downtown.

Kairos Shen, the Director of Planning at Boston’s Redevelopment Authority, pushed the idea of rediscovering land downtown, through enormous public works projects that shift space and reintegrate previously disparate communities. Most notably through Boston’s Big Dig, an ongoing 20+ year project that has been tearing up Beantown’s downtown to bury the confluence of highways underground. Notoriously behind schedule, massively over budget, and dangerously faulty (a steel panel from the ceiling of the Big Dig crushed a Bostonian two years back), the completed project will, in essence, bring forth rediscovered land above ground as all those expressway go subterranean. Rediscovered land for parks and playgrounds (and condos) is all great, but at what price? Billions and billions, apparently.

Other speakers included Brent Toderian, Director of Planning for downtown Vancouver, who asserted that embedded property rights, “the whole life, liberty and pursuit of happiness shtick” has no place in Vancouver, where all city planned space is discussed by a very vocal public. Vancouver is one of the world’s few major cities that have zero freeways running through downtown. This bucolic cultural capital puts the pedestrian first and foremost when discussing street use. Following the pedestrian, cyclists, bladers, joggers, and recreational users have control of the road, then light-rail public transit systems, commercial vehicles like delivery trucks, and, a distant fifth, the passenger car. In stark opposition to London, Toderian asserted that “Downtown and cities that work for kids (and families) work for everybody else.” A true city by public design, as opposed to private corporate interest. And with a 4% vacancy rate, not to mention the 2010 Winter Olympics, Vancouver seems to have figured something out. Robert Freedman, the Director of Urban Design from Toronto, was on hand, discussing cheap residential land availability up north ($375 Canadian a square foot! That’s cheap! Even with their dollar kicking our dollar’s ass!), as well as one of the world’s most liberal immigration policies. This makes Toronto one of the world’s most ethnically diverse cities for families to raise their kids, with a strong and colorful public school system, vibrant culture, exciting public art, etc. Rounding out the panel was Cheong Koon Hean, from Singapore, who talked about her blue and green city — blue because Singapore is a city-state island in a tropical weather zone, which makes for pleasant living, and green because of the three enormous botanical gardens and parks located right downtown, which makes for healthy recreation. She didn’t mention that you can get arrested for chewing gum or spitting on the sidewalk.

The general conclusion from all this downtown talk was, in essence, different strokes for different folks. Because of all the various uses a city and its downtown carry – residential, commercial, industrial, recreational — each city has to develop its downtown accordingly. There’s no master plan for Downtown. Although we liked London’s agenda a whole lot. And as we sipped scotch and gingers from the open bar and gazed out at our magnificent city through the floor to ceiling windows, 60 stories up, we considered the future of NY. We don’t know what it’ll be, but we’ll be here to enjoy it.