A temporary settle

December 6, 2011 at 2:56 pm | In architecture, Portland | 2 Comments

My updates have lately dwindled to practically zero. I’m in limbo of sorts, arguably a continuation of life-as-usual, but now in a different place.

For the time being, I’m in Portland Oregon. Interesting city. Been here for about a week, busy settling in and heading out when possible. My little furry friend, Jigger the Dog, makes things a bit tedious, since I have to travel by car to the various neighborhoods I want to explore. Public transit would take him, IF I had a pet carrier – and IF he tolerated being put in one… But I don’t, and he doesn’t. So we drive, in Portland. Yeah, I know…

Yesterday, I drove to one of Portland’s southeast neighborhoods to check out a house that was featured in the Wall Street Journal‘s real estate section: A Bicyclists’ House Built For Two. The article (by Nancy Keates), not to mention the comments, are fascinating. There’s a picture slide show, as well as a video. Long story short: pro-cyclist and financier husband build themselves a rather expensive and very modernist-in-style house in a neighborhood that’s otherwise pleasant, but unassuming – both in price and style. The result: a certain kind of polarization. Some people love the house, others loathe it – and loathe what they perceive as the owners’ hubris and sense of entitlement. (The house came in at ~$1.5million; the neighborhood clocks in at about 1/3 that price.)

So, yeah, it’s partly a NIMBY issue. Here’s a screen shot from Google maps of the street view:


You can see that the bungalow on the right (the house’s left) is well and truly dwarfed by the new addition to the neighborhood, but contrary to what some of the comments on the Wall Street Journal article’s board would suggest, there are a number of 2 to 2 1/2 story houses in the neighborhood, which are easily as tall as this new one.

The difference is that the other tall (or big) houses have a traditional shape (no flat roofs), whereas this one doesn’t.

It seems to be the Dwell Magazine look that sets some people’s teeth on edge, which is really too bad. It’s a handsome house, if you’re a fan of that aesthetic. But given that Dwell has inspired satire sites (see Unhappy Hipsters), it’s an understatement to say that the style is not universally loved and has to be handled sensitively when introduced into an established neighborhood. On the other hand, my gut response wouldn’t include defending the bungalow on the right… I think I’d prefer comparing and evaluating this house’s aesthetic (and other) merits by comparing it to the best of what’s already in the neighborhood.

Regarding the perception by some that the owners have an altogether too well-developed sense of entitlement, the comments board points to an interesting story: the owners held a charity fund-raiser in conjunction with one of the local brew houses. The goal was to raise money to send the professional cyclist to Germany for a world cycling event. Not sure about the details around that, but people will jump on something like this as proof of social disingenuousness. The gist of that argument runs approximately like this: If they can afford to build themselves a $1.5million house to satisfy their cycling passions [sic], why do they need to appeal to the public to raise funds to travel to competitions?

Based on my visit to the street yesterday, my impression was that the house does “stick out,” which suggests it’s out of scale. And yet it’s really not the scale that’s salient, but rather the house’s style. If it were in a traditional style, hardly anyone would balk at its scale (which, as I noted, is matched by a number of other houses in the neighborhood). No one would be talking about its price tag, either. But because its style is very salient, the issue of the fundraiser comes to serve as “proof” (however spurious) of its perceived effrontery.

One last thing: nowhere in the article is there any mention of a very interesting public feature I noticed on that street: it’s lined with bioswales. I haven’t seen those on any other residential street in Portland, and in fact haven’t seen too many of them anywhere. Portland has a page about its use of bioswales, but this street isn’t actually mentioned. I wonder if there are other examples in the city?

Playhouse, tiny house, innermost house

August 2, 2011 at 8:37 am | In architecture | 6 Comments

The other day I came across a great post by Umair Haque, How Our Economy Was Overrun by Monsters and What to Do About It.

Haque, who doesn’t stint in criticizing vapid consumerism, in this post describes a kind of decline-of-the-[Roman?]-empire trend in which the very rich provide their progeny with elaborate (and very expensive) “playhouses.” He references what he calls an eyebrow-raising New York Times piece.

In that article, a Texas multi-millionaire wife enthusiastically endorses her daughter’s $50,000 “playhouse”:

“I think of it as bling for the yard,” said Ms. Schiller, 40.

Some people might consider it “obnoxious” for a child to have a playhouse that costs more and has more amenities than some real houses, she conceded. But she sees it as an extension of the family home. “My daughter loves it,” she said. “And it’s certainly a conversation piece.”

Exactly what the conversation would be about is left to the reader’s imagination. Since the playhouse is supposed to impress with its amenities (air conditioning, stainless steel sinks and mini-fridges, vaulted ceilings – all the trappings of The Big House, in other words), one can’t help wondering if one’s mind is supposed to assume Lilliputian dimensions as it’s clearly directed to admire the same things already installed “for real” (and super-sized) elsewhere. Coming up with different sizes of the same thing is an old retailing trick – and why not retail one’s lifestyle as just another desirable commodity.

Or not?

I was struck by how these over-designed “playhouses” (in which every detail has been filled in, with nothing left to the imagination) contrast with Tiny Houses built for adults.


From Small House to Tiny House

The tiny house movement started coming into its own when architect Sarah Susanka published The Not So Big House in 1998, giving rise to a small house movement. The point was to give up size (quantity) in favor of quality. From there, it didn’t take long for the small house movement to be linked to environmental sustainability and to evolve further into a tiny house movement.

Adults started getting very creative, using the constraint of small size to unleash innovations in architectural design. The tiny houses were not mini-Big Houses, as the luxury playhouses of children of the very rich seem to be.

In a luxury playhouse, old ideas rule the day insofar as the houses echo what the children can find in the  homes of their parents – and the extreme expense has congealed the play. Nor were the tiny houses fantasy castles or jungle-gym aeries, a kind of privatized replica of what used to take place in improvised form in the commons (in woods, fields, or public parks).

Certainly, tiny houses are private. But what happens in some of them is real fantasy – that is, real play – which in this case means a reinvention of how to live, not a copying of how others live.


The Innermost House (on Tiny House Blog)

Innermost House

Perhaps the most intense Tiny House I’ve ever come across is Diana and Michael Lorence’s Innermost House. I’m still not sure what to think about living in a 12-foot cube in the woods, without electricity or running water. But Diana Lorence seems to be on a mission to teach others what she’s learning on her journey:

There Are Two Ways to Simplify Your Life

One way is eliminating the things from your life that don’t really matter, until you are left with what you need.
This is the rational way to proceed, and it works. Experts and practitioners speak of it with authority. There are steps to take and things to accomplish and ideas to exchange. You can really get somewhere this way.

The other way is the art of filling your life with what you love most in the world. Love has a strange emancipating power that lets everything else fall away.

Your heart allows you to sense this mysterious force. In some way, Love has the power to displace many things. (source)

Useful advice, whether you’re editing a home or a life, downsizing or contemplating an acquisition.

See additional essays by Diana Lorence here and here.

In an essay about design, Sacred Game, Lorence writes:

How do you design a house without designing it?  How do you grow something to be wild?  Sometimes we could almost see it in the distance: “Beautiful Necessity” Emerson called it.  It is the need to be  that has gone out of things.  In the world today we are all free to design whatever we can think of, but we are powerless to make things necessary.

Michael and I were seeking a way of getting behind  the designed world, inside design to something more essential.  We weren’t looking for new designs or for old designs. (source)

Provocative questions – probably not to be answered with miniature stainless steel appliances and all the mod-cons of already-existing built forms…

A list of websites for Tiny Houses

Via House Beautiful (where, of all places, I came across the Lorence House), a list of 15 websites for Tiny Houses:

See also:

I’d also add Victoria’s own Zigloo, which builds beautiful dwellings out of cargo shipping containers.


Umair Haque concludes his post as follows:

Our monsters are reflections of us. And our modern-day monsters are a reflection of our own monstrous appetites. They might just be shadows on the wall, reflections of our insatiable thirst for self-destructive stuff. But that just means that the power to vanquish them is already resting gently in our hands.

Tiny Houses reflect back a less monstrous world. For one thing, there’s just not as much room to put self-destructive stuff inside them…



How to Save Downtown (Victoria BC)

May 30, 2011 at 8:16 pm | In affordable_housing, architecture, dying_downtown, FOCUS_Magazine, land_use, urbanism, victoria, writing | 2 Comments

Below is the real version of my article, How to Save Downtown (it’s about downtown Victoria BC, but applies to many city centers crushed under the weight of overly needy – and stupid – municipal governments as well as strapped economies…).

I submitted this article to FOCUS Magazine for publication in its June 2011 issue. I was subsequently horrified to see that the publisher truncated the article so severely as to make it nonsensical. After I complained, he put a more-or-less intact version online (at last reading, there was at least one paragraph still missing), but the print version of the article has unfortunately already gone to press. I wish I could have taken back my submission, but I couldn’t. I’m much embarrassed (and angry) to see my name attached to it.

Here’s the article  as it was intended to appear. Readers might notice that it grew out of my previous dying downtown series:

How to Save Downtown

Victoria City Council recently offered the business community an olive branch when it addressed the tax ratio of commercial to residential rates by voting to reduce marginally (very marginally) that ratio by 0.004% in favor of commercial rates. While the Chamber of Commerce responded with tepidly mumbled words of encouragement for council’s decision, the daily newspaper merely reported the other side of the coin: that residential property taxes will rise by 7% compared to 1.1% for businesses.

Anyone who bothers to walk around downtown Victoria can see that many businesses are struggling. Take Fort Street’s Antique Row. Start at Cook, continue to Douglas, and note the number of “for lease” or “going out of business” signs. Too often, though, we ignore the plight of businesses and focus instead on the rise in residential taxes.

I recently posted photos of the many empty Fort Street storefronts to my blog. The comments that came in were instructive. Readers (including business owners) blamed downtown’s desuetude on many things: big box stores; tourism downturns; street people; lack of community support for independent merchants; problems related to overzealous parking commissionaires.

Everyone cited high rents, worsened by excessive property taxes:

“I have been perplexed that while we saw a recession start in 2009 retail rents continued to rise right through it as though there was nothing happening.”

“There is certainly no shortage of eager, creative and motivated entrepreneurs in Victoria. If they can deal with the impossible rents, along with the fact that the City is inherently anti-small business (zoning, permits, etc), they may have a chance.”

Comments repeatedly cited the City of Victoria’s lack of business support, noting that it burdens businesses with adversarial inspectors and bylaws.

Others noted that there is too much emphasis on tourist retail and not enough on incubating innovation for the homegrown market.

And people asked: if so many storefronts are empty, why are rents still so high? Bound to triple-net leases, tenants are typically on the hook for property taxes, and even building improvements. For paying property taxes, the City delivers nothing in services, not even garbage pickup.

In 2005 Greater Victoria had a retail vacancy rate of 3.5%. By 2010, that rate had climbed to 5.9%, and it doesn’t look better for 2011. According to Colliers’s Market Report, “2011 is likely to be a year of ‘status quo’ for Greater Victoria retail.” While the forecast admits that “2010 was a year of uncertainty,” it also posits that “the overall market has remained relatively healthy.” Downtown’s empty storefronts suggest otherwise.

Perhaps macro-analyses of Greater Victoria, which include data points around “secure federal and provincial employer presence” (read: consumers) and Uptown or Westshore shopping mall expansions (read: vendors), don’t speak to what’s going on specifically in our downtown.

I asked Graham Smith, who looks after Greater Victoria retail for Colliers, about lease rates and their responsiveness to the market. Smith pointed out that every property is different, each has its unique qualities. Whether it’s on this or that side of the street or in this or that block affects its lease rates. And just as properties are unique, so are owners. Smith likened it to selling a house: most people are convinced that their property is uniquely valuable, and some owners will insist on getting their price, while others just want it rented.

Why would a property owner let his property stand empty instead of offering struggling tenants a rate reduction? Smith’s market-based answer seemed cruel, albeit realistic: if a business is struggling, there’s something wrong with the business model besides leasing expenses. A 10% rent reduction isn’t going to help that business thrive if there either isn’t really a market for what it’s retailing, or it’s not open when customers want to shop.

However, consider the tax burden imposed on business. Take 789 Fort Street, a property assessed at ~$2 million; its 2010 property tax was $49,130.18. A comparable ~$2 million residential Victoria property (1989 Crescent Rd., for example) is taxed at ~$13,685.00. That’s a difference of nearly $35,000.

Who pays the property tax on commercial buildings? Typically, the triple-net lessee.

According to sources at City Hall, Victoria relies equally (50-50) on residential and commercial property taxes, but commercial property is clearly carrying the brunt. Nor is Victoria alone. 2010 Tax Rates reveal that Victoria taxes businesses the most, but Saanich and Langford are close behind:

Victoria Residential: 3.6581
Victoria Commercial: 13.1471
Ratio: 3.59
Langford Residential: 2.3343
Langford Commercial: 7.3764
Ratio: 3.16
Saanich Residential: 3.2697
Saanich Commercial: 11.6980
Ratio: 3.58
Oak Bay Residential: 2.9305
Oak Bay Commercial: 5.0610
Ratio: 1.73

True, every municipality has a pro-residential bias. After all, residential taxpayers elect the politicians. However, the difference is very much skewed against City of Victoria businesses in absolute terms: a lessee will pay much less property tax for a similar property in Langford since the property has a lower assessed value. This difference can be the make-or-break factor for a business, and partly explains the exodus from downtown. Let’s also not forget that fewer than ten years ago, Victoria’s ratio of commercial to residential taxation was 2.63, while it has now climbed to 3.59. (source [PDF])

An effective way to reduce the currently painful ratio would be to increase the number of residential properties on the City’s tax roll.

Recall my conversation with Graham Smith of Colliers. From his 11th floor CIBC Building boardroom we could see 789 Fort Street, a one-story building with two storefronts. Presently, half the building is rented, while the other languishes.

I pointed out that this building should have rental apartments on top, which would provide both customers and even employees. The newer building next door (at Fort and Blanshard, southwest corner) was built within the last fifteen years. Although newer, it’s also just a single story, with zero residential above the store. It seems we haven’t been adding mixed-use buildings with a view to bringing a diversified demographic into the downtown.

So why don’t we encourage more development that brings residents into the downtown, which would help “spread the pain” of property taxes on mixed-use commercial/residential buildings and would benefit retailers who need steady repeat customers? Consider that downtown Victoria’s population has actually declined since the 1970s when new seismic regulations left buildings vulnerable to unaffordable code upgrades. If you’ve ever wondered why some buildings downtown don’t have people living on the second or third floors, it’s because they didn’t remain “continuously occupied” since new codes came into effect. If a building remained continuously occupied, it’s exempt. If it’s vacated, however, it becomes subject to the new rules, and requires fearsomely cost-prohibitive seismic upgrading.

As for new buildings, condo towers (which target just one small slice of the larger demographic pie) have added some population, but we’re still below 1970s population levels. Newer one-story buildings, as well as older one-story buildings, represent a missed opportunity to diversify the downtown and to bring its residential levels back up to what they used to be.

There is a new proposal that’s heading in the right direction. The Cosmopolitan is a 5-story development for the 600-block of Fort. Currently making its way through City Hall, it includes ground-floor retail, with 4 stories of rental housing above. If the project is approved (it needs a minor height variance), it’s an opportunity to build exactly what Victoria needs: residential over the store. I asked the developer, Jurgen Weyand, how the numbers work when building rental. The short answer: they don’t, really. Compared to building condos, building rental is an investment on his part that may pay off for his grandchildren. But retailers will benefit from having residents that live where they work and shop.

So let’s look out Colliers’ 11th floor boardroom window again. Sometime in the last 15 years, a new building went up at Fort and Blanshard. But it’s just one story and has no apartments above the store. Sometime in the last few years, tenants came and went at 789 Fort Street, but it’s just one story and there are no residents living above the store. There are scores of downtown buildings that have no one living over the store. The Cosmopolitan will hopefully contribute to reversing that trend.

Clearly, we need more development downtown, whether it’s condo towers or five-story walk-ups above ground floor retail. New condo towers may attract retiring empty-nesters who want to shop and re-create in a walkable downtown. Rental apartments above ground-floor retail diversify the demographic, to attract a younger, more mobile tenant who works in those businesses for her day job (and shops there, too), while incubating the next great thing in the creative economy after hours. Win-win.

Bottom line: if we want to save downtown, we need people living there, right over the store. That would provide customers for businesses, as well as defray the property tax burden currently off-loaded via triple-net leases solely on businesses.


Dying Downtown Victoria BC

March 21, 2011 at 8:26 pm | In architecture, business, dying_downtown, johnson street bridge, land_use, scenes_victoria, victoria | 12 Comments

If downtown Victoria BC storefronts were teeth, this city would need a new bridge.

…Oh, wait. That’s a bad joke (see posts tagged with Johnson Street Bridge)… We are getting a new bridge. But as the following photos will show, what we really need is economic revitalization.

This afternoon, I was walking down Fort Street to Monk’s at Fort and Blanshard. I passed one empty storefront after another – just on one side of the street, just on one street, just on three-and-a-half blocks.

This is what many parts of downtown Victoria look like.

We start at Fort and Cook Streets, the northeast corner, before we head east on Fort St. (we’re traveling on the north side of the street).


We see 1090 Fort St, and there isn’t just one empty storefront, but two.

This is Kona Coffee Shop – or rather: was. Now gone.


Next up, same building:

This used to be a hair salon. Even a hair salon can't survive here?


Next up, in a small, low building a few doors down:


Charles Baird Antiques – closed


The next one’s demise (just a few doors down) was new-to-me:

Plenty Epicurean Pantry will be closing next. 🙁


Nearly next-door to Plenty (ironic name) is the Korean specialty clothing boutique that closed earlier this year. The sign claims that someone new is taking over, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Right now, the place is empty and bereft:


Specialty knits boutique – closed earlier this year.


Ok, we’re still in the same block (1000s), and here’s another place that has been sitting empty for months and months:


This used to be a niche home decor store. Has been empty for months. No new takers.


Ok, we now come to the 800 block of Fort St. (The 900 block on the north side of Fort is mostly surface parking lots – next to Lund’s – and a grassy trash-lot in front of View Towers. So, there are only a few stores in that block anyway…)


Seeing that this one is closing was a shocker: it's a Korean grocer, next to a French butcher. Why is it closing?


A couple of doors down, there’s the carpet place, which recently started claiming that it was closing. Probably just a ploy, but I thought I’d include this to replace Marvan (in the 1100 block of Fort, on the south side), which is closing, sadly:

I'm guessing this store isn't really closing. It's just a cheap ploy to convince rubes there are deals to be had.

The alleged going-out-of-business carpet store did take over (in a most unattractive manner) an empty storefront next door – yes, another one, and it has been empty for …what?, years now?

The ex-Miroirs home furnishings store, an empty storefront for months upon months, currently being used by the carpet store two doors up (the carpet store that's claiming to go out of business, too)…


Now we’re in the 700 block of Fort. I can’t even remember what this store used to be – but it’s empty, and will probably stay that way for ages…

Empty storefront in 700 block of Fort St.


And next door to the above, the former Cairo Coffee Merchants, defunct:

Cairo Coffee Merchants, closed, empty, …for how long?

Ok, that was depressing.

It never fails to amaze me that Victoria is full of attractive neighborhoods, bounded by gorgeous scenery that’s unparalleled.

But go downtown, and you have to wonder why Victorians hate their city so much that they let it die.

Note: this post is the first of a series of three – it just kind of happened that way. Part 2 is here and part 3 is here.

Apartment hallways: semi-public, communal spaces

January 11, 2011 at 11:56 pm | In architecture | 3 Comments

Can anyone recommend great sources (books, online or print articles, photo sites) that address the topic of apartment foyers and hallways? Or do you have personal insights and stories about apartment hallways you’ve loved or loathed?

I’m playing around with some ideas, possibly for a longer piece.

For example: the notion of public, communal space in private buildings; representational space (by that I mean space that’s given over to constructing a kind of public persona of the building, and by extension its inhabitants), which seemed more common in 19th century and also in early 20th century apartment buildings, but which became either extinct or chintzy after World War II …or at least by the sixties.

What drove those changes?


Lack of demand (the people who used to want to be represented all took off to the suburbs to strut in double-height entry foyers, eliminating the need for luxury lobbies in apartments – and shades of Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns…)?

And more: what about technology? Via this PDF, Looking Backward In Order to Move Forward: The Chicago Courtyard Apartment Building (by Richard Gnat), there’s a reference to Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment, 1900-1960 (by Gail Cooper): clearly, technological advances are going to shape the built form.

A search on Amazon for Manhattan apartment history brings up wonderful books – I was searching here because I was looking for Elizabeth Hawes terrific book, New York, New York How the Apartment House Transformed the Life of the City (1869-1930), which I read some years ago. Hawes clearly delineated the history of how communal living was made acceptable to the middle / upper-middle classes in America. I find it funny that we’ve gotten “richer” in many ways since 1900, but our apartment buildings (and I include condos) have become worse when it comes to their semi-public communal spaces.

In a more recent NYT article, Hawes writes about Our Buildings, Ourselves, but doesn’t address the public hallway/ foyer question at all (she’s writing about moving from a traditional apartment with rooms to a loft). It’s been too many years for me to remember whether she talked about hallways in her book; will see if the library has it…

Other factors:

Economics? It’s obviously cheaper to chintz on hallways if you’re counting square footage and dealing with planning departments wary of too-high floorspace-to-footprint ratios. Maybe The Architecture of Affordable Housing offers insights into the form issue.

Style? The New American Apartment: Innovations in Residential Design and Construction: 30 Case Studies might be instructive.

A blog post that directly addressed the issue I’m asking about, Look! Hallways That Make Us Feel Frumpy, also included some terrific comments and a link to a flickr page about Gaytonia, a swank old apartment building – which I bet has gorgeous public / common areas.

This is the photo that Look! Hallways That Make Us Feel Frumpy used to make its point…


…and yet this isn’t even the worst kind of public/ communal space. This one makes the ones inflicted on people in the 60s and 70s seem grandiose (albeit frumpy and badly decorated for sure!).

Do green and make green

October 11, 2010 at 10:45 pm | In architecture, green, housing, land_use, real_estate, vancouver, victoria | 1 Comment

There are times, I think, when having a tumblr (vs a blog) would be cool – then it would be enough just to post, free-standing, the smack-down that Peter Busby (“one of Canada’s leaders in green architecture”) gives Bob Rennie (“the influential Vancouver condo marketer who is the last say for many developers on what will sell”).

In this conversation recorded by Frances Bula, Busby and Rennie have just started talking about Victoria BC’s Dockside Green:

Mr. Busby: It [Dockside Green] did not make money because it was priced competitively against non-green product. Dockside was competing against buildings that weren’t trying to do anything in terms of green, so [the developer] didn’t get much of a premium in the marketplace for his green features. And that came out of his profit. And that’s why the project’s dead right now. And that’s why we have to have improved building codes. They must pay for a better envelope. Everything else is greenwash. If you don’t make a better building that performs better, you’re just putting green fuzz on buildings. (source)

I’m not heartened by reading Busby’s assessment of Dockside Green (that it’s “dead”), but he is so right to talk frankly to the marketer. I’ve been to developer luncheons – where there actually were developers who did real green projects – and their marketers (whom I spoke to as well) couldn’t get the facts, or push them into the marketplace. And I have no doubt that by the same token there are plenty of developers who continue to convince the moneybags and the marketers that it’s not possible to do green and make green.

I’d like to start something in the space between their arguments – work on retrofitting existing housing, for example. So much work needs doing there.

In case that Globe and Mail article link goes dead, here’s one to CTV News, which carries the same interview/ text.

n.b.: I do appreciate Bob Rennie’s last (literally) word:

Mr. Rennie: I’ll be there. But we can’t just tell the consumer to pay more. This has to work for them and, if it doesn’t, they aren’t going to buy it. They’ll move somewhere else, out of Vancouver. And, in the end, that’s what we have to look at, not just what rich people in the city are willing to pay for.

He gets it from the marketing p.o.v.: it’s no good if what you’re doing drives people away. Getting more people into your city is actually a good thing (something that too many people in Victoria absolutely do NOT get, sadly).

Offering hot yoga and skin care …with garbage on the side?

September 21, 2010 at 9:19 pm | In architecture, style, urbanism | 4 Comments

There’s a storefront about three blocks from my house that has been bugging me for a few years now, and tonight I’m calling it out. The frontage I’m talking about is actually at the back of the building, a narrow 2-story structure that stretches from a frontage on a main street to another (secondary) frontage on a quieter (but still mixed-use residential/ commercial) parallel street. The frontage on the main street is so-so. But the one on the quieter street is a disaster – and has been for a couple of years now.

The building used to house a restaurant. The restaurant closed and the building was subsequently bought and completely renovated to house a hot yoga studio. The main street frontage was supposed to have a spot for a juice bar, which never materialized and so it sits empty (it’s currently for lease). Consequently, the only thing that animates the main street facade is the entry to the yoga studio. As I said, the main street frontage is no great shakes.

But compared to the other frontage, it’s ok – if only because this other frontage is screamingly awful.

The second frontage on the quieter parallel street also has an entry to the yoga studio, as well as another retail space. For a while, that space was taken up by a doctor’s office, then it stood empty. It currently houses a skin care salon. It’s quite dead.

When the building was bought by the people who installed the yoga studio, they hired an architect to design the new “face” for the second frontage, and boy, did she or he blow it, in my opinion.

The architect didn’t take into account that the building needs a space for garbage bins – and consequently, there’s no place for them. Instead, the architect added lots of glazing to this back facade: two glass doors (one for the yoga studio, the other for the retail space), and three (!) windows, two of which are quite large and belong to the retail space.

I guess it all made sense in the abstract, but it sure doesn’t work for this building. The owners have nowhere to put their garbage bins except smack-dab in front of the windows and next to the two doors, and as a result this frontage has the worst feng shui I’ve ever seen.

Normally, I wouldn’t be superstitious, but there’s something downright uncanny about the sense of poverty and lack projected here. The retail space so far hasn’t thrived – it looks forlorn. The entry to the yoga studio looks unwelcoming: who would want their right side to graze the garbage bins on entering, symbolically carrying trash into their yoga practice? As for the retail space: I wouldn’t see a doctor who looks out on a garbage can, and I don’t think I’d want to visit a skin care salon under those conditions, either.

If this were my building and my business, I’d spend the money to take out that window on the far right. I’d install some clerestory windows instead, but I’d make sure that wall is a solid wall for about the first 4 or 5 feet, high enough to store the garbage bins so they’re nowhere near a window. I’d get rid of that useless ugly rock bed, which just screams “dead & sterile!” to the universe and every passer-by. Instead, in that spot I’d build an enclosure for the bins (to hide them), and I’d put a potted tree (or bamboo) right by the drainage pipe – a symbolic uptake (by the plant) of the abundant water that flows down from the roof. Bingo, feng shui fix! Cost? I don’t know – what does it cost to take out a window, replace it with a wall with some clerestory windows on top, and build a “house” for the garbage bins to keep them away from your good house of health and abundance? Whatever it costs, I’m sure it would pay off in the end. Somehow, the way things stand right now, you get the sense everything’s languishing. Those garbage bins are just plain repellent.

Here are two not-so-great pictures I took earlier today. There was a car parked right in front, so my photos don’t show the whole building. But you can see how the garbage bins destroy the facade, and how sad it’s all looking – the paint job was never finished (it has been a couple of years) and the building gets its share of graffiti, too.

This could be so much better…


A glance across the threshold

August 4, 2010 at 10:43 pm | In architecture, land_use, real_estate | 2 Comments

A while back, I read A. Alfred Taubman’s Threshold Resistance: The Extraordinary Career of a Luxury Retailing Pioneer. As I noted on my LinkedIn Reading List Update,

An unusual book by an unusual individual: A. Alfred Taubman is a real estate developer (who has been accused of “malling” America); an art collector; former part-owner of Sotheby’s; a family guy; philanthropist; major booster of Detroit (Detroit!); …the list goes on. At times I wondered whether I’d like Taubman if I met him; other times I was sure I would. He writes like an Everyman – he is, however, anything but an Everyman. It makes for an interesting tension in reading the book: Taubman makes you understand his world (sort of), even if its self-made-man tycoon-ishness remains outside your grasp. There’s a lot to learn here, about how developers think, what makes them tick, and why-and-how urban and suburban development issues are definitely two-edged swords.

What that means – in a nutshell – is that I learned a lot from reading Threshold Resistance and recommend it.

Today I had to look up the book online and thus came across Alfred Taubman’s site and blog. Tremendous energy – he doesn’t stop. For example, this fall he’s teaching a course at Lawrence Technological University on architecture and real estate (ARC 5732, “Land Economics/The Architecture of Development”). His post lists the guest talent he lined up: Rafael Vinoly, Eugene Kohn, Michael Graves and Kenneth Walker.

Agree or disagree, it’s hard not to be awed by Taubman’s energy and drive. And whatever position you take regarding development – urban, suburban – you need to understand how key individuals who are unique and visionary (even if you don’t agree with their vision) approach the matter.

If ARC 5732 were available online, I’d audit it.

Realistic 3D projection on building: more info?

July 24, 2010 at 10:35 pm | In architecture, arts | Comments Off on Realistic 3D projection on building: more info?

Does anyone have any information about an amazing video posted on wimp.com, called Realistic 3D projection on a building?

Watch it now (click on the image):


Wimp seems to “own” this video in the google-sphere and I’m not succeeding in tracking down its origins. I’d love to have some details – how it was done, who did it, where they did it, and what it took to do it.

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