Monday, December 5, 2011
When one looks around the cityscape of downtown, it isn't hard to spot the dinosaurs, the looming, massive remnants of urban policy of downtown's past. While no one can say that the city hasn't tried to re-invent and re-develop itself, it is fairly easy to declare that most of these reincarnations never lived up to the hype. Whenever I visit a new city, I like to walk around and consider the original intents of the buildings, public spaces, and developments. It is interesting to see how different eras and design models have aged, how their uses have been preserved, or how they modified with the times. In some cases, these developments have been simply left alone, no longer functioning as anything but a snapshot of the past, like dinosaur bones.
Flint certainly has all three. Some major buildings still function as they were first planned. Several spaces have been re-worked, such as the various commercial buildings converted into trendy housing, and so many have been left alone, with varying degrees of maintenance. With the weather turning decidedly wintery, and downtown decked out with holiday lights, one specific monolith from the past has captured my attention.
The University Pavilion Ice Rink (or as it is officially known... the University Pavilion Annex) is very visible example of that third brand of dinosaur. It sits on East side of Saginaw street, at the southern crossing of the bridge over the Flint river, sunk about ten feet below street level with a series of steps and platforms grading down from the sidewalk. Above, metal trusses with quarter century old speakers hanging from them support what looks like a massive tent. Below, the oval shaped rink is empty, save for what seems like an ever present puddle of water in the center. The story of the rink is the same as most of the other renewal projects of its generation. It was constructed as part of the Water Street Pavilion development in the 1980's, an urban mall which in addition to the luxury hotel across the street, and the shopping and entertainment facilities constructed North of the river, was intended to draw the wealth back into the city that had been steadily flowing out for two decades. Like its contemporaries, the rink (as well as the pavilion complex that it was a part of) did not prove to be a profitable as hoped. While the pavilion never officially closed its doors, the ice rink was eventually decommissioned. Upon purchasing the pavilion facility, rink and all, the University of Michigan - Flint declared the rink to be too much of a liability, sold the Zamboni and has kept it ice free ever since.
The Ice Rink was constructed in between the glitzy shops of the pavilion, and the cutting edge Halprin designed riverbank park, and was designed to incorporate elements of both. Alongside its Eastern end, a building matching the pavilion was constructed to sell concessions, rent ice skates and house a Zamboni. In between the main pavilion and the rink was promenade of sorts, leading on one side to a shiny new parking deck, and on the other across Saginaw Street to the front door of the Hyatt Regency. On this path today, we find another odd relic from the past; what appears to be a small, mostly enclosed concrete foundation. Some research uncovered that an information booth had been housed here, as well as what was described as a "video tower"
On the other side of the rink, facing the street and the park, the aforementioned stepped adjustment from street level to rink level is a clear conceptual ode to Riverbank Park. Today it could be unclear whether these were intended to act as flower planters, fountains, seating, or all of the above. With the former Hyatt building being re purposed as student housing, and soon as UMF's school of management, the university has put some effort into sprucing up the place, repainting guardrails, and hoisting flags around the canopy proclaiming "GO BLUE!" .....But what is in store for this relic?
Over the past several years, a handful of plans have been drawn up which include ways to address the pavilion. It seems that for many planning firms, the best thing that could be done with the space is to simply demolish it. Several plans, specifically those from the Sasaki firm, have suggested to their clients (more specifically the University of Michigan - Flint, and the City of Flint ) that the site would be better utilized as a "green space" than any type of build facility.
I would like to challenge that notion
First and foremost, let me get this off of my chest. I find it disturbing how loosely some planners throw around the term "green space" when making suggestions for urban spaces. I am an absolute advocate for quality open parkland within the city, however I feel that open "green space" needs to be thoughtfully and specifically placed within the urban context, and not just used a buzz-word to make demolition more palatable.
This suggestion seems lazy to me though. Open green space for the sake of open green space is often no more useful than those giant lawn and drainage ponds in front of Wal-Marts. They require constant maintenance, are difficult to program, and are boring to look at. Beyond all of that, any pedestrian at the site of the rink could walk a block or two in any direction and find something along the lines of open space. (Of course, the Sasaki plans also call for the addition of more "green space" throughout this area, so one could potentially encounter several lawns.)
Secondly, downtown Flint, and the block upon which the pavilion and rink are situated has already suffered from a drastic loss of building density. Did the planners who suggested the removal for more grass take into consideration the aesthetic effects yet another demolition would have on what was intended to be the densest strip in the region? While the rink does not provide the visual weight that the mid rise commercial structures it replaced provided to the street scape, it does fill the space.
Thirdly, the rink provides the rare opportunity for outdoor, cold weather programming. While the summer months are jammed with festivals and activities, (one of which is a noon time concert series which actually takes place in the rink) once the snow hits, most of Flint's festivities move indoors. Having a facility that could provide any level of street life to the city from December through March would greatly enhance the downtown experience.
Lastly, and probably the lease arguable, is the notion of nostalgia. Now, I never had the opportunity to skate in the pavilion rink, but it is not hard to conjure romantic thoughts about snowy evenings with friends, skating in circles, or watching hockey games on weekday afternoons. For although most of my generation of Flintoids never had the chance to try it out, this specific dinosaur has never been too difficult to decipher. It looms as a major landmark in our city, and although empty, it is not hard for us to imagine it full.
Perhaps the facility is destined to be put down for good. Perhaps there is no chance of it being sustainable, or perhaps the land will be deemed perfect for some other built investment. All I know is I would be hard pressed to find anyone who would wax nostalgic over an empty lawn.
Thursday, March 3, 2011
I had the opportunity to visit Detroit today, to attend a lecture at Wayne State university on the topic of "Eds and Meds" and their impact on the urban condition. "Eds and Meds," if you are unfamiliar, stands for "Education and Medical" and the lecture discussed how traditional industries have been replaced by colleges and hospitals in many of our nations center cities. One of the speakers was Omar Blaik, a former vice president of the University of Pennsylvania who spearheaded a 2 billion (yes, with a b) redevelopment effort in that university's host neighborhood of West Philadelphia.
Several months back, I asked the question; "why are so many people attracted to the idea of a 'college town' atmosphere in Flint?" It seems that this desire, in varying degrees, is present for communities around the country. I would venture to say that few people would categorize Detroit as a college town, but the community is taking steps to take advantage of the collegiate population by promoting the benefits associated with "college towns"
An interesting trend that I have noticed, is that many of these benefits associated with "college towns" are simply the benefits of urban living. Things like cultural institutions, independent retail, and nightlife, all accessible by foot. Could it be that our common psyche has become so removed from .... that the only time many of us have experienced those benefits were in actual college towns, where students had to walk from their housing to their needs? If this is the case, we are grossly misunderstanding the reasons for the that type of community interaction. Students living in traditional college towns don't walk because they are students, they walk because they are A) poor, and B) live in close proximity to their needs. Surrounding businesses also flourish because of their proximity to walking students. It is a lot easier to see a shop's window displays, hear a bar's live acts, or smell a cafè's speciality when you are not buzzing by at 35 mph, but walking by on your way back from class.
So, why can't these principles be applied to a non-collegiate population? I find it strange that so many bank on the idea that the typically broke college student is the magic key to unlocking economic success. By simply creating (or preserving) environments that encourage their behaviors, most populations could contribute to the turn-around.
Again, don't get me wrong, I am absolutely all for encouraging student life and accommodation in Flint, but while such a fuss is made over students (myself included) huge sectors of the city could be waiting to live the same lifestyles.
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
I have been scouring the internet, looking for articles for my classes. While most have dealt with the histories of various local structures, I have also had the luck of stumbling upon other reports and narratives of people's time spent here.
One such find was a blog entry entitled The Flint Ecological Urbanism Project which outlined an effort to draw inspiration from Flint's past, present, and future and allow artists to instal perform original works in the city.
This reminded me of last summer's discussion about public art in Flint. Since that discussion, the University of Michigan Flint installed a statue of Ghandi in Willson Park, and a good friend of mine put some color in Riverbank park. What do you think?
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
So...most bloggers will admit to have experienced one or more long hiatus shortly after beginning their blog. So I guess I get a free pass right?
Sorry about that!
If I do happen to have anyone still paying attention to me, let me fill you in on a few things/excuses which have contributed to my lack of time spent in the blogosphere
Since we last chatted I finished up my year of volunteer service though AmeriCorps, moved to a swanky apartment, and started back up in school.
AmeriCorps was an incredible experience, it gave me a glimpse into the neighborhoods and peoples of Flint that I never knew existed. It took me from being blindly optimistic to grounded and aware of some of the struggles which occur everyday in the lives of normal citizens.
My year with AmeriCorps prevented me from being enrolled at the University of Michigan - Flint, so with that out of the way, I quickly signed up for classes with the intention of forming an I.D.S. (Inter Disciplinary Studies) degree which focuses on urban design. My first semester back provided slim pickings in regard to class options, so I decided to focus my attention on gaining anthropological perspectives. I feel like it was a good decision.
It is my thought that the responsible development of urban areas is going to be key in our planet's future. Unfortunately, as it stands now, ideas about urbanism, and what cities are extremely varied, even within similar communities. What makes a person from one part of the county feel uncomfortable, even scared about the idea of entering Flint, and another excited? What does city living mean to someone living on Pasadena? In a downtown loft? On the East Side, or in the College and Cultural district? By gaining a better understanding of these points of view I feel that we will be able to understand how our communities need to adapt.
After the first semester of this mindset came and went with some great successes, I was able to find some remarkable courses which fit perfectly into my desired program. This semester I am taking an "Urban History" course, which focuses on the development of American cities between colonization and today. In this course we have already had great discussions on race/gender/class relations in urban contexts and the relationship between the urban and the rural. In addition to that I am taking a course on "Urban and Regional Land Use Planning" as well as another course on "Walking, Biking, and Sustainable Transportation." These courses would actually make a very impressive lineup if we had a formal urban design program. I wonder how long it will be before U of M connects the dots.
School has been challenging, but a bright spot in the past few months has been my move into a swanky new place. I recently moved back to Carriage Town, into a restored duplex. I am sure I will be posting some pictures soon. But for now, here is a photo of my super awesome mid-century modern thrift store finds!
Being in Carriage Town is great, I really appreciate being able to walk to school, to coffee, to a grocery store, to all of the downtown business. I also appreciate that it has a character of its own, distinct from downtown, or from campus. I feel like in the future, that character will only become more distinctive. Because of this walkability I have challenged myself to never use my car to get to campus. I must admit that the past week has been pretty chilly. But I have managed.
Anyway, this was more of an apologetic post than anything. With all of these great courses I am taking this semester, and a few exciting prospective projects that may be heading my way in the near future, I hope to get back into the groove of regular postings. Let me know if there is anything interesting going on!