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Friday Reading: Floating Stadiums, Caracas’ 45-Story Walk-Up, The Ballad of Janette Sadik-Khan

34th Street Busway Ain't Happening gbNYC

Friday: long celebrated for its excellence, and traditionally regarded as one of the best days of the week in which to read a seemingly random, gently curated list of articles that are faintly related to gbNYC’s general areas of interest. It’s tempting to ask something along the lines of ‘What’s not to love?’ But there is in fact something not to love here. One is that it comes once per week. The other has to do with the busway rendering you see on this post. But we’ll have more on that next week. For now:

  • Extravagant promises and ridiculous renderings and a faint-but-pungent whiff of BS on the breeze — it could be a mega-development on the West Side of Manhattan or the Brooklyn side of the East River, but most often it’s something to do with a proposed sporting venue. You should really just go to Norman Oder’s Atlantic Yards Report if you need a refresher on how this sort of thing has made itself felt most recently in New York City. The plutocratical high-handedness and bummer-y inevitability that accompanies the construction of sports arenas constructed either with public funds or with the aid of buckets of tax breaks can be infuriating enough to reduce the projects at their center to footnote status. Sometimes, that’s a good thing: Bruce Ratner’s crummy new Nets arena in Brooklyn is, besides being an anti-triumph of poor planning and bad governance, as aesthetically pleasing as a barn-themed mall. (Admittedly, both Stephen and I are biased on the Ratner/Nets issue) But in a lovely slideshow/essay at Slate, Eric Nusbaum points out that sometimes the stadiums, arenas and other sports venues that don’t get built are the most interesting ones of all. “The stadiums we erect can embody both civic pride and civic catastrophe, unbuilt stadiums reflect our ambitions and our shortcomings more brightly,” Nusbaum writes. “The ballparks we imagine, design, and fail to see through to completion are testaments to our egos, our metropolitan insecurities, our ever-changing sense of aesthetics, and our growing economic expectations.” (If you were curious: yes, the West Side Stadium makes Nusbaum’s list of greatest never-built stadiums)
  • The building that’s still known as The Tower of David in Caracas, Venezuela was not intended for its current occupants. The 45-story structure in Venezuela’s capital was designed and built as a luxury condominium for what was once Venezuela’s oligarcho-banker class — which explains all the marble, and the rooftop helipad, and the other luxury condo accouterments. But when the bottom fell out of the Venezuelan economy in the 1990s, the project stalled out. And when Hugo Chavez was elected in 1999 and amped up the level of state control over the economy, it became clear that the people for whom the tower was built were almost certainly never going to live there. Today, as Simon Romero and Maria Eugenia Diaz write in the New York Times, The unfinished Tower of David is home to over 2,500 squatters. “The squatters live in the uncompleted high-rise, which lacks several basic amenities like an elevator,” Romero and Diaz write. “The smell of untreated sewage permeates the corridors. Children scale unlit stairways guided by the glow of cellphones. Some recent arrivals sleep in tents and hammocks… Few of the building’s terraces have guardrails. Even walls and windows are absent on many floors. Yet dozens of DirecTV satellite dishes dot the balconies. The tower commands some of the most stunning views of Caracas. It contains some of its worst squalor.” Recommended for: fans of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and people who are very pessimistic about One Madison Park.
  • There is already an excellent urbanism site that makes New York City its focus. It is called Streetsblog, and you should definitely read it. At gbNYC, we generally stick to buildings, generally, with the periodic detours into political editorializing or expressionistic green roof rhapsodizing. Of course, green building out of context is more or less meaningless — or, at the very least, less effective than it would be when fitted into a more cohesive and coherent approach to citywide sustainability. I’ll have an article on this subject in a biggish venue next week, hopefully, but the long story short is that the latter — the citywide stuff — is both harder and more valuable. Which made it something of a bummer when a coalition of bigfoot local business and the reliably wild-eyed revanchists over at the New York Post managed to short circuit Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan’s ambitious plan to create a pedestrian plaza and busway on 34th Street. The New York Post stuff is predictably terrible — Steve Cuozzo is worried that the plan would “ruin” 34th Street, which suggests he hasn’t visited the already nightmarish, Sbarro-afflicted thoroughfare recently — and Streetsblog’s Noah Kazis’s coverage of the strange status quo-enamored argument against the project is predictably terrific. I’ll probably write more on this next week. But for now, enjoy this profile of Ms. Sadik-Khan in the New York Times. She’s not exactly a sustainability hero, let alone a martyr, but she has done some really interesting and admirable work — and seems like an intriguingly complicated person to boot. “In four years as commissioner, Ms. Sadik-Khan has earned international fame for transforming the car-clogged streets of New York,” Michael Grynbaum writes. “She has directed the installation of more than 250 miles of bicycle lanes, turned parts of Broadway into pedestrian plazas and eliminated hundreds of parking spots across the city. Even some of her critics concede they are impressed with the scope and the speed of her achievements. But among the city’s political class, Ms. Sadik-Khan has also become notorious for a brusque, I-know-best style and a reluctance to compromise.”

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