[published in ARTVOICE v11n6, February 10, 2000]

The Convention Follies, Part 2: Urban Life, Urban Death
by Hank Bromley

[This is the second in a series of articles about the convention center controversy. Previous articles in the series are available at http://www.gse.buffalo.edu/fas/bromley/CCS/.]

Take a nice long walk along Elmwood Avenue, for, say, half an hour. What do you see? People: working, shopping, exercising, eating, playing, resting, and just strolling. People watching the other people. Houses, apartments, stores, restaurants, banks, libraries (for now, anyway), churches, parks. Rich people and poor; old and young; locals, suburbanites, and out-of-towners; every race and ethnicity. Pedestrians, bicycles, cars, buses. In short, a little of everything—any time of day, any day of the week, in all weather. Elmwood Avenue never sleeps.

Now try walking alongside the current convention center, on Pearl or Franklin. Not so entertaining, is it? Where’d all the people go? Half an hour seems awfully long—this street never wakes.

Why are these two places so different? Oddly enough, there are far more people per acre downtown (at least during weekdays) than along Elmwood. Why are the sidewalks so empty? What do vibrant streetscapes like the Elmwood strip, most of Hertel Avenue, Main Street in University Heights, and all those quaint towns where people love to spend their vacations have in common, that the perimeter of the convention center doesn’t share?

Urban health and vitality

Cities are particular kinds of places. Traits that may be perfectly salutary elsewhere can be devastating in urban centers; what they need is not the same as what suburbs or small towns need. Streetscapes at odds with how cities actually function, no matter how attractive on paper, and how successful they might be elsewhere, will only wreck an urban neighborhood.

Pedestrians are the lifeblood of cities. They sustain retail businesses, their presence makes the streets safe, and—once you have enough of them—they serve, in themselves, as an attraction to yet more people.

And what kind of built environment brings out the pedestrians, in sufficient numbers to support shops and restaurants (which, in turn, attract more people), keep the neighborhood safe, and make a location feel as though it is someplace—bringing yet more people to the streets, in a mutually reinforcing cycle? What is the foundation for urban vitality?

Jane Jacobs’ classic text, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, constitutes the long answer to that question. Read it. Please. Then see how resistant you become to misconceived development schemes.

Until then, a short answer is density and diversity:

Generating the steady stream of round-the-clock, heterogeneous pedestrian traffic that feeds an Elmwood strip requires lots of destinations different kinds of people want—and need—to visit, at different times of day. Purely residential neighborhoods tend to be active in the morning and evening, and completely dead in between, office space generates traffic just before and after the work day and during lunch, bars populate the streets late at night, etc. Keeping the streets lively depends on "mixed use," with all sorts of destinations interspersed. A coffeehouse next door to a sports bar may draw largely separate clienteles, but each still benefits from the presence of the other, even were the customers of one never to enter the other: the added traffic, whether stopping in or passing by, still makes the sidewalk both safer and more interesting to be on (or watch through the window while sipping cappuccino).

While many building uses can contribute, some are particularly efficient at generating pedestrian traffic. Relative to their size, retail outlets and food service are especially prolific. Urban geographers have exhaustively measured "trip generation" for different kinds of structures. In Urban Space for Pedestrians (Boris Pushkarev and Jeffrey M. Zupan), for instance, tables show residential structures generating about 10 trips (entrances or exits) a day per 1000 sq. ft., office space about 10-50, restaurants about 200, department stores about 250, fast food outlets about 500, and one supermarket a stunning 536 daily trips per 1000 sq. ft. Publicly accessible services clearly generate many more trips than offices or residences, and are essential to achieve the necessary volume of pedestrian traffic, but again, a healthy district requires a broad mix of building uses in order to spread the traffic around the day and week.

The various destinations must be packed closely together, so that the "dead space" between pedestrian-attracting destinations is short enough to facilitate crossing to the next island of interest—thereby incorporating even the dead space into the flow of pedestrian traffic. This is one of the key differences between the needs of urban and suburban places: lots of open space between buildings may be visually appealing and perfectly functional in a setting where everyone drives to each destination, but in an urban neighborhood it only obstructs the pedestrian flow that’s essential for all the destinations to mutually support one another. An unbroken street facade is best. Think again of Elmwood Avenue, with its continuous storefronts, a fresh one every twenty feet or so, and all directly abutting the sidewalk: perfect for keeping your interest, and leading you past—or to—many attractions besides your planned destination. Now what happens when you reach a detached building set behind a large street-front parking lot? That parking lot may be attractive to the passing motorist, but it’s the kiss of death for pedestrian traffic. If we must have the parking, put it behind the building, and leave the street facade intact. Or build a parking structure, directly on the street (with retail space on the ground floor). The setback not only suppresses pedestrian traffic to the building itself, but the gap it creates terminates the traffic that would otherwise flow past it, thus severing the links among its neighbors. Even without the parking lot, a single building whose scale is out of keeping with the neighborhood can pose an equally forbidding barrier simply by virtue of its size, despite retaining an unbroken facade, flush with the sidewalk. A lengthy stretch of monotony is just as ruinous as empty space.

So urban vitality depends on densely packed, mixed use structures, varying in type and size but moderate in scale. A mixture of building ages and conditions is, however, equally important: varied uses require varied operating expenses. A healthy urban neighborhood actually needs an ample supply of low-rent space in relatively rundown quarters—they constitute an incubator for fledgling and innovative ventures (which until more fully established cannot afford the higher overhead of finer quarters) and a point of entry for lower income renters. Building stock all of the same age and quality, by imposing a uniform cost structure, inhibits diversity of use and population, and thereby threatens the long-term viability of the neighborhood.

The street layout itself also shapes activity within the district. Short blocks and frequent corners offer multiple possible paths into and out of, and through, the neighborhood. Multiple paths through the area mean each person can vary the route of routine trips between, say, home and work, thus bringing a wider variety of people past each location (and into contact with each other), enabling a given population to support a more diverse range of establishments. Multiple paths into and out of the area better integrate it with the immediate surroundings. Imagine how different the Elmwood strip would be if it were one long block, accessible only from either end, lacking the frequent side streets knitting the primarily commercial Avenue itself together with the primarily residential adjacent streets.

Finally, healthy urban neighborhoods lack "border zones"—highways, rail lines, arenas, etc.—that block or inhibit pedestrian cross-traffic. The areas along either side of such borders lose roughly half their traffic, being able to draw only from the direction opposite the border. That impediment typically reduces traffic below the level of viability, adding to the dead zone along the border. The deterioration of additional areas reduces the supply of pedestrians yet further from the original border, threatening the viability of even wider swaths. The trouble zone thus creeps ever outward in both directions from the initial insult.

Convention centers old and new

Comparing Elmwood Avenue and Pearl/Franklin Streets with these considerations in mind, it’s easy to see why one has become a people magnet, and the other is mostly deserted. The existing convention center is essentially a single-use structure that replaced a diverse and steady flow of pedestrians with periodic homogeneous swarms, concentrated into certain hours of the day, as well as into a few days of the week and a few months of the year. (No restaurant, for instance, can survive on thousands of people thronging in during a convention, then barely a trickle until the next major gathering, weeks or months later.) Given its size and how long the average visitor stays inside, even at peak activity levels its daily trip generation per square foot is abysmally low. To passers-by not headed to the building itself, it presents a lengthy monotonous stretch devoid of attractions, inhibiting traffic in all directions. Even worse, by blocking Genesee and Mohawk Streets, it added hundreds of feet to the walk between Franklin Street (and anything to the west) and Main Street, severely restricting the supply of shoppers and hastening the decline of the Main Street stores.

Adding 400-500 feet to a walking distance may not sound like much, but the number of people who will make a pedestrian trip is tremendously sensitive to its distance. Another table in Urban Space for Pedestrians shows how rapidly that number falls as the distance increases. The table includes data for several cities, of which Edmonton has perhaps the climate most similar to our own. In Edmonton’s central business district, only 40% of all pedestrian trips are over 500 feet long. Just 21% are over 1000 feet, and 11% over 1500 ft. Every addition of 500 feet cuts the number of people willing to walk roughly in half. Even in relatively balmy Manhattan, each addition of 500 feet reduces pedestrians by about a third—more than enough to send low profit-margin businesses under.

As discussed in Part 1 of this series, the net result of building the present convention center has been just what one would expect: the people and businesses formerly in and around this site rapidly vanished. The convention center is a huge sterile expanse, which has also sterilized everything around it.

And what of the proposed convention center in the Electric District (Mohawk site)? It would violate every single necessity for urban health, in the worst possible way, reproducing on a far larger scale the damage done by the current center:

Note that this impact has nothing to do with the aesthetics of the building itself. The structure would have this effect regardless of whether it were visually lovely or as hideous as the current convention center. It’s simply a result of distorting the urban fabric to insert something of absolutely inappropriate scale and function for the downtown core.

Jane Jacobs notes that the intricacy and complexity of a vibrant urban district are often mistaken for disorder, and met with efforts to stamp them out and install vapid homogeneity. The main danger to our cities is posed by the kind of mind that "sees only disorder in the life of city streets, and itches to erase it, standardize it, suburbanize it."

Downtown is not a suburb, and can only be destroyed by trying to make it one. The diversity of an area like the Electric District—or what remains of it between the parking lots—can certainly benefit from public investment. But not by obliterating what’s there and installing a megaproject in its place. Megaprojects eradicate diversity and reduce density, instead of reinforcing them. And that leads inevitably to an erosion of urban vitality. If we choose to pursue megaprojects, let’s at least put them where they won’t do so much damage.

Revitalization within the downtown core requires multiple small-scale projects, working with and extending the existing diversity of the site. Look at the clearest example of recent downtown revitalization: Chippewa Street. Progress there was achieved not through demolition and the imposition of large-scale, standardized homogeneity. It’s been a gradual process of rehabilitation, capitalizing on the unique characteristics of the area. Part 3 will explore where such a development strategy in the Electric District might lead.

Hank Bromley teaches at the UB Graduate School of Education and is a member of Citizens for Common Sense. He can be reached at hbromley@buffalo.edu.