Thursday, October 2, 2008

Not So Huge

I took these photos back in August while walking from downtown to lower Queen Anne. The first is a construction photo of the Alex Condos, which likely looks completely different now, and the latter is the headquarters of Pensar Development, an engineering company. Though these buildings serve different purposes, they are similar in size and that's what draws me to each.

In the era of (hopefully dead) block-long developments and worse (Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards -- see Dissent article here), it is so refreshing to see something at a more reasonable scale. Take Pb Elemental's 151 Lofts: would you rather live in a wonderful building like this or, as the narrator says in Fight Club, a filing cabinet for widows and young professionals, like the offensively reactionary (not to mention intrusive with respect to the sidewalk) Olive 8? And in all honesty, I'm not even that into the modernist aesthetic. It just happens that several of the projects at the scale I cherish were designed in this fashion.

I was reminded of Jane Jacobs' dislike for large projects while recently reading about the Kelo v. New London (2005) Supreme Court decision that upheld that city's right to exercise eminent domain on the grounds of spurring economic development (the city subsequently handed the land over to private developers to execute the redevelopment plan). Before you freak out, as I did -- I thought eminent domain was only used for projects that served the public -- rest assured that the case didn't set any precedent for such behavior. It basically says that economic development for depressed areas is beneficial to the public and that cities must exercise caution and not play favorites, etc.

Anyway, besides pointing out these questionable uses of eminent domain (fifty years earlier), Jacobs discusses some negative sides of huge projects. A major one is how they attempt to change an area immediately (cataclysmic money is thrown at an area rather than gradual money being slowly invested) when the process of true community building takes time. Another downfall is that block-long developments, like the Sheraton along 7th Ave, are bland visually while areas made up of small, diverse buildings, like Fremont, are interesting.

While the Alex Condos may never develop into a full-fledged "community," I'd bet the residents feel more like one than those in the high-rises; and though skyscrapers atop podiums are all the rage, they certainly don't offer much to one experiencing the city from the sidewalk.

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