Thursday, June 11, 2015

South Newport: Or, A Case Study On Why "Open Space" Is Bad

So I stumbled across this post the other day. In it, the poster argues that, while the northern half of Jersey City's Newport district seems to have made an attempt at Vancouver-style urbanism, it does not succeed to the degree Vancouver's does.
Newport, Jersey City. It's telling this -- not a streetscape -- is the beauty shot.
This is not an unfair claim. Having been in Newport a couple of weeks ago (because Reasons), I can confirm with my own eyes that, while the River Drive is a reasonable urbanism, and the corner of Washington Boulevard and Town Square place has -- even when it decides to rain -- more than enough people to overcome its inferior site design, the southeast corner of Newport is a weird corner of buildings spaced too far apart: a sense of enclosure is lacking, and the buildings don't really capture as much commercial energy as they ought to (despite the existence of excellent sushi and boba tea joints).
Abandoned Pavonia Terminal from sometime in the '70s
In large part, this is because Newport's first phase dates to the late '80s: up to about 1960, the site was home to the Erie Railroad's Pavonia Terminal, a handsome Victorian edifice. Photos from the '70s show the passenger terminal as having fallen into ruin (though it is unclear whether the Erie's successor, the Erie-Lackawanna, had freight facilities in the area). By the early '80s, the bankrupt E-L was absorbed into Conrail, along with a whole bunch of other railroads; it focused its freight landport at the old Lehigh Valley (another bankrupt railroad)'s Oak Island Yard in Newark's Ironbound.* The complete abandonment of  the E-L's waterfront facilities soon followed.

The developer promptly razed the site flat (including the old terminal building)** and built a shopping mall and office park in its stead. As site development -- still incomplete -- continued, modern retail has been built west of Washington Ave. (in particular, a large power center north of Newport Parkway), and more recent residential shows the effects of radical change in urban theory.***
Building mass models of north and south Newport
The Urban Prospector shows a Sketchup mockup of both the southern and northern parts of Newport, focusing on the long streetscape gaps to the south. Those gaps are the ultimate end-result of the planning of the day, which favored generous "open space": the Modernist tower-in-a-park paradigm. While towers-in-parks and commercial aren't necessarily antithetical to each other, it is notable that in examples where commercial has successfully been integrated into towers-in-parks, such as Metropolitan Ave. in Parkchester, the Bronx,^ it is built to the street, taking over the green space.

That's because the eye is caught by proximate activity. When this activity is not well displayed, or is broken up by excessive greenswards (which also serve to decant park use, thereby making each greensward less interesting) -- both of which are the case in south Newport -- the street becomes significantly less pleasant. The more green "open space" a site has, the worse it's framed, the less concentrated its use, the less urban the neighborhood. Despite the river walk -- a key amenity -- this is clearly seen in south Newport.

Fortunately, it's easy to calculate open space -- it's how much of the site isn't, in fact, built on. That is, it's the opposite of a site's building coverage.
North and south Newport
For this exercise, I decided to consider "North Newport" the developed part of River Drive north of Newport Parkway. (The southwest corner of Newport Drive and 14th Street is clearly a parcel that hasn't been developed yet, not a public or semipublic green space; the same holds true for the piers.) South Newport is considered the part of Newport that extends from Newport Parkway down to Thomas Gangemi Drive east of Washington Boulevard. I was also interested in how much of the open space is given over to car use (storage, mostly). Finally, I disregarded the street, considering it public right-of-way. Here is the map yielding the polygons I used.

So, for north Newport, we find that:

  • 3.83 acres are covered by buildings
  • 1.46 acres are green space
  • 0.00 acres are "car" space
This means that there are a total of 5.29 developed acres in North Newport, of which a mere 27.6% is "open space", arranged as part of the riverside park and a small plaza.

For south Newport, by contrast:

  • 12.48 acres are covered by buildings
  • 10.32 acres are green space
  • 3.48 acres are "car" space
Summing this up, we see that there are 26.28 total acres in south Newport, of which 13.8 acres are "open space", some 52.5% of the site. A surprisingly low 33.7% of the "open space" is actually devoted to cars: its high visibility has urban fabric-destroying impact, however.
Actually, the site plan shows even more open space, perhaps as much as 60%
But what about the undeveloped parcels? There are three undeveloped sites around Newport Green Park, totaling 13.06 acres. Assuming they are developed to the same density as north Newport^^, that yields 3.60 acres of open space, or 9.6 acres covered by buildings^^^.

If we consider "greater north Newport" to be the sum of developed north Newport + undeveloped north Newport + Newport Green Park (4.93 ac), that yields 24.02 acres. According to our methodology, 9.99 acres of that will be open, or 49.6% of the site. This compares favorably with south Newport's 52.5%.
Can this be replicated elsewhere in Newport?
Yet because of choices in how the "open space" is placed, north Newport's 49.6% will be far more effective, and far more heavily used, than south Newport's 52.5%.

That's because north Newport's open space won't be decanted into small enclosure-destroying plazas and port-cocheres the way south Newport's were. Instead, it'll be concentrated into one well-sized neighborhood park, a place that's already well-loved, despite the fact that but a single development abuts it.

* It is notable that the Erie-Lackawanna's other predecessor railroad, the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western, had built what was perhaps the best non-Pennsylvania Railroad freight route from New York west. But when I-80 was built through Paterson, the State bought part of the E-L's low-grade mainline; freight movements on the replacement route, a commuter branch now part of the New Jersey Transit's Montclair-Boonton Line, proved less than ideal (and is, in fact, cited as a contributing factor as to why the E-L failed to outcompete its collapsing competition). Had the E-L retained the track connection through Paterson, it is likely that Conrail would have favored that -- shorter -- mainline to Buffalo, which in its turn would have favored more intensive passenger use of the Water Level Route -- today's Empire Corridor.

** Which should have been preserved and renovated IMO.

*** Or possibly just the success of Battery Park City (built by the same developer). Though, that said, Battery Park City has perhaps the blandest streetscape of any Manhattan neighborhood.

^ Incidentally, fully planned as early as 1939, which helps explain the unusual insertion of a Main Street when similar postwar projects (cf. Lafayette Park, Co-op City) favored small strip malls.

^^ Which may or may not be likely.

^^^ But what about streets? There has to be automobile access, especially on the huge northernmost parcel!

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