Sunday, October 16, 2011

Food for thought

Like many of us, I live in an enclave of NIMBYism (mine is in a neighborhood of downtown Hollywood), where "development" categorically equals "anti-environmental," "anti-ecological," "anti-green," "anti-community," and perhaps just downright "evil."

Why should this be so?

I've often wondered why the same people who oooh and aaah at the glittering Manhattan or Chicago skylines, with their towering skyscrapers, begin to polish up the pitchforks when a developer like Millennium Partners even suggests putting two skyscrapers in downtown Hollywood. (The tallest of the two, at 48 stories, would still be less than half the height of Chicago's 100-story mixed-use John Hancock Center.)

One rendering of the project (below) seems intentionally to disguise the height of the towers, probably to quell local phobia about their dwarfing of the "iconic" Capitol Records Building
which nonetheless shows up for the squat little runt it is in this drawing.

Millennium Hollywood (proposed).

Arguments about such towers "spoiling the view" hold little weight in my book. On the contrary, for urban dwellers towers
are the view, and if anyone is under the illusion that the seemingly sacrosanct Capitol Records Building is an architectural marvel that can't be obscured, just let him or her reflect that someone felt the same way about the existing structures that the Capitol Records Building—at a whopping 13 stories, then the zoning height limit—obscured from view in 1956. It completely obliterates my own view of the Taft Building, a much handsomer structure, for example.

A more honest and circumspect rendering (below) shows that the two towers might provide a vibrant architectural addition to the downtown Hollywood skyline and prove a nexus for further development.

Hollywood Millennium (proposed).

Which brings me to this book:

The Triumph of the City, by Edward Glaeser (Penguin Press, $29.95 hardcover)

Glaeser is an urban economist and he has some very surprising—and, for the NIMBYs, very likely upsetting—things to say about the kinds of buildings that these urban acrophobes detest.

One of his main premises, for example, is that denser, taller cities are actually greener than shorter, more spread out ones—and that they are certainly far, far greener than suburbia, where everyone drives. Being a Harvard academic, Glaeser has plenty of facts and figure to back up his assertions, but the book is hardly dry. Instead, it reads like an engaging conversation with someone you meet at a cocktail party, a well- informed contrarian, who gives you a whole new way of looking at something.

Glaeser has some harsh words for the Bay Area environmentalists, for example, who proudly oppose building in the San Francisco region
—thereby passively encouraging development in previously pristine areas such as the Nevada desert or in highly "brown" regions such as Phoenix, and ultimately contributing to overall carbon emissions. "Think globally"? Hardly.

For Glaeser, development
—and, yes, that means skyscrapers—is a sign of urban health, but also of planetary health. Pointing to the viability of tall metropolises such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and Tokyo, he makes a case for upward rather than outward expansion, and shows how dense, concentrated cities can provide the greenest of all possible worlds.

I love a good contrarian as much as I detest NIMBYs.


  1. Edna St. Vincent MillayOctober 24, 2011 at 7:10 PM

    I will very greenly get Triumph of the City from the NYPL. I'm not sure why L.A. is so determined to emulate Manhattan--I couldn't live here (in Manhattan) if it were for more than 5 days a week, which I'm lucky enough to not have to.
    I agree that in our highrises we're greener than the suburbs, but even in the utopian NYC of Bloomberg's imagination--chairs for tourists in the middle of Times Square, the high-maintenance, water-intensive relandscapings of Madison Sq and Washington Sq parks, the relentless gentrification that prices all but the same rich sorts out of the borough, etc--there's still alot of noise and soot and crowding. Highrises--even a 15-story prewar building such as mine--may be green, but they can be soulless, especially in clumps. Walking up Third Avenue is depressing, not uplifting. "I'm jus' saying'"

  2. Dear Edna,

    I suppose the grass is always "greener" on the other side of the country.

    A 15-story prewar building (on Park, I presume?) is hardly a highrise by Manhattan standards and sounds pretty darn cozy to me. I doubt I'd have to escape to the Hamptons on weekends for some low-rise relief. And if you don't like Third Avenue, just avoid it like I shun Watts.

    I'll swap apartments with you for a week any time you choose.

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