City design conference gives mayors a new outlook

October 22, 2012

Few mayors come into office knowing much about architecture, design or urban planning, even though those issues are at the heart of some of the biggest, most expensive and longest-lasting decisions they will make.

And that is why many of those decisions are not very good. Multimillion-dollar projects with a huge impact on city life and image are often victims of political compromises, well-connected developers, traffic engineers and low bidders.

That is why Joe Riley, longtime mayor of Charleston, S.C., and the National Endowment for the Arts created the Mayors’ Institute on City Design in partnership with the United States Conference of Mayors and the American Architectural Foundation.

Since 1986, the institute has brought together more than 900 mayors and 650 professionals to discuss creative, contemporary approaches to city planning and design.

Earlier this month, the University of Kentucky’s College of Design hosted an institute conference that brought seven mayors to Lexington. They came from a diverse group of cities: Cambridge, Mass.; Joplin, Mo.; Clarksville, Tenn.; Atlantic City, N.J.; Waterbury, Conn.; and Pennsylvania’s Reading and Lower Merion.

The mayors spent two days with a group of world-class design professionals. At an opening reception, Mayor Jim Gray and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, both graduates of the institute, urged them to seize the opportunity.

“Like any great business, you’ve got to be planning,” Fischer said.

Each mayor was to give a 15-minute presentation about a local project. It would then be discussed by the other mayors and the professionals. The “experts” weren’t there to design for the mayors; they were mostly advising them on how to get the help they need to achieve their cities’ goals.

The professionals included two names familiar in Lexington: Gary Bates of Norway-based Space Group, who did the Rupp Arena, Arts & Entertainment District plan and is now doing a master plan for Louisville; and Chicago architect Jeanne Gang, the MacArthur “genius” award winner who did the site plan for Lexington’s proposed CentrePointe development.

Others offering advice included Neil Denari and Roger Sherman, two Los Angeles architects who design projects all over the world; Roberto de Leon of de Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop in Louisville; and landscape architects Shane Coen, whose Minneapolis firm has an international reputation, and Paul Morris, who as deputy secretary of the North Carolina Department of Transportation tries to marry good design with highway engineering.

The institute has some strict rules: The professionals cannot be hired to do work for the mayors’ cities for a year. Also, sessions are limited to mayors and design professionals; no observers. The goal is open, honest discussions, because achieving good urban planning and design often involves a lot of strategy and politics.

The design by De Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop for a restroom at Louisville’s Riverview Park mimics a traditional Kentucky tobacco barn in an artful, and low-maintenance, way. Photo by De Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop

Michael Speaks, the UK college’s dean, and his faculty also were there to advise, something they do for Kentucky cities when asked. Speaks said he hopes to create a program similar to the institute as an ongoing resource for Kentucky mayors.

Several mayors said afterward that the conference was an eye-opener.

“It was a terrific, creative, collaborative learning process,” said Liz Rogan, president of Lower Merion’s Board of Commissioners. “I learned that there are creative solutions and processes and different ways of seeing things.”

Melodee Colbert-Kean, mayor of Joplin, came with the most complicated project: rebuilding a city devastated by a tornado in May 2011.

“It was incredible,” Colbert-Kean said of the session. “The information they have given us will go a long way toward redeveloping our city the way we want it to be.”

There was one public session at the end of the conference. Gang, de Leon and Denari showed some recent work, which offered lessons about the value of good design.

For example, de Leon showed designs for a restroom building at a riverfront park in suburban Louisville. In most cities, this would be a concrete-block box, painted beige. But de Leon designed a beautiful, low-maintenance, reasonably priced piece of highly functional metal-and-concrete art that echoes the look of a traditional Kentucky tobacco barn. It isn’t simply a park services building; it is an icon.

Denari said it is important that any city or company planning a major project hire the right design professionals and give them time to think through all of the client’s needs and problems — some of which the client may not even realize they have.

“It’s about thinking, ‘How can we maximize this project?’ ” de Leon added. “How can we maximize what we’re willing to spend to get the most value?”


Business now looks to designers as problem-solvers

April 9, 2012

One of the great things about living in a university town is the ability to attend educational lectures and symposia, which are almost always free and open to the public.

I recently went to a symposium at the University of Kentucky marking the 40th anniversary of the School of Interior Design. One reason I went was I knew very little about interior design or the education of interior designers.

I was like most people, school director Ann Dickson said: “They think it’s about teaching people how to choose the color of drapes.”

Modern interior design is about creating the environments where we spend most of our time. It is not just about making interior spaces more attractive, but more comfortable, efficient, functional, healthy and safe.

In an increasingly complex world, designers of all kinds are more problem-solvers than anything else. Many of the problem-solving approaches discussed by this symposium’s speakers and panelists are useful no matter your business.

Robin Guenther, a New York-based principal with the big architectural firm Perkins + Will, is a specialist in designing health care spaces. Why should anyone but health care professionals care about that?

Well, at 18 percent of gross domestic product and growing, health care is one of the nation’s biggest industries, Guenther noted. So much health care construction is being done that it is uniquely positioned to drive the research and innovation that eventually will influence virtually all construction.

Guenther gave a fascinating presentation about how the hospital building boom is leading to innovations in energy-efficiency, environmental sustainability, comfort and safety.

Most hospitals built in the late 20th century were poorly designed, she said. Patients and staff had too little natural light and ventilation, which has proven health benefits. Guenther cited studies that show the average U.S. hospital uses as much energy as 3,500 homes — and 40 percent more energy than comparably sized hospitals in often-colder northern European climates.

In addition, she said, too little attention was paid to the array of chemicals used in carpet and other non-renewable building materials. The body absorbs many of those chemicals, which can contribute to everything from cancer to obesity.

“Shouldn’t we be building cancer centers that don’t contain known carcinogens?” Guenther said. “This is really a design question. How we design our materials, our supply chains.”

The marketplace drives innovation, she said, and designers will increasingly be asked to play key roles in making businesses more efficient and competitive.

“Hospitals talk about a nursing shortage,” Guenther said. “There’s not a shortage of nurses so much as a shortage of nurses who want to work in most hospital environments.” That is because today’s nurses have so many more professional opportunities.

A key ingredient to successful design and innovation is what speaker Prataap Patrose called “disruptive partnerships” — bringing together people from different realms of thought and experience to solve problems.

“Problem-solving is no longer linear; it is three-dimensional,” said Patrose, who directs the Urban Design Department of the Boston Redevelopment Corp.

Inclusive, structured problem-solving processes are sometimes criticized as inefficient because they take time. But Patrose said that what may seem inefficient in the short-term is often more efficient in the long-term. That is because better processes produce more effective solutions.

Patrose said 80 percent of his job is negotiation — something he never studied while in college to become an architect and urban designer.

Mayor Jim Gray, who was among a group of panelists asked to respond to Patrose’s remarks, emphatically agreed. He said his background as a construction executive has been invaluable as mayor.

“Construction is fundamentally about project management and problem-solving,” Gray said. “The skill sets that we have so much need for involve collaboration — designing systems to get things done.”

Gray cited Lexington’s recent Arena, Arts and Entertainment Task Force as an example of a project that combined creative vision with “disruptive partnership” collaboration and a well-designed process for translating ideas into a plan.

“It’s about being on the balcony strategically thinking,” he said, “and also being on the dance floor tactically thinking.”

Patrose and Gray both emphasized that effective problem-solving requires being able to measure needs and results.

“The measurable becomes understandable,” Patrose said. “The understandable becomes personal and the personal becomes solvable.”

It’s more ‘heritage services’ than preservation

March 4, 2012

Times change, and it is good when professionals take a critical look at what they do and how they do it to make sure they are meeting society’s needs.

The University of Kentucky’s Historic Preservation Graduate Organization in the College of Design did an excellent job of that last week with its 6th annual symposium on historic preservation issues.

The symposium brought together several national experts to reflect on this basic question: Is the way historic preservation is viewed and practiced in this country too elitist? The basic answer was, well, yes, but not as much as it used to be.

The discussion was fascinating, because it went well beyond professional and academic concerns. It dealt with broad social and psychological questions that have made headlines throughout Kentucky for decades. How do we balance culture and business, economy and quality of life, property rights and heritage? What is worth preserving? Whose culture gets preserved and whose doesn’t?

“The name historic preservation is an unfortunate choice,” said Ned Kaufman, an architectural historian and preservation specialist in New York. He advocated changing the name and focus from historic preservation to “heritage services,” which he described as “things we do for people by preserving their heritage. It shifts the emphasis from things to people.”

From the first historic preservation laws in the 1930s, and continuing with the next wave of them in the 1960s, the emphasis usually was on preserving as museum pieces the landmarks associated with wealthy and powerful white men.

So-called urban renewal, a federal policy that did major damage in cities across the nation between the 1950s and 1970s, was highly elitist. Many low-income and minority neighborhoods were obliterated based on misguided notions of progress.

Since the 1970s, historic preservation has become more sensitive and inclusive. But speakers agreed that laws, government bureaucracy and professional preservationists’ mindsets are still too focused on objectifying buildings rather than protecting historic places that are valued culturally by large segments of the public.

Alicestyne Turley, director of Pan African Studies at the University of Louisville and an expert on the Underground Railroad, talked about how difficult it has been to get protection for many black history sites, in part because formal documentation is often difficult.

Restoring old, distressed neighborhoods can be a two-edged sword. While old buildings are restored, poor people are displaced. To many minorities, Turley said, historic preservation has always meant “you’re coming to take something from me.”

Thomas F. King, an archaeologist and leading expert on cultural resource management law, said historic preservation has always been too focused on “saving the homes of the rich and famous and the sites of their deeds.”

As an example of how average people’s cultural history is often ignored, King recounted how families that had lived in Western Kentucky’s “between the rivers” region were forced off their land between the 1930s and 1970s so the federal government could build dams, lakes, wildlife preserves and eventually the Land Between The Lakes recreation area. Former residents are still fighting to preserve their family cemeteries.

Lexington has often fought over historic preservation issues, such as when the South Hill neighborhood was bulldozed in the mid-1970s for the Rupp Arena parking lot or a block of 19th and early 20th century buildings was demolished in 2008 for the still-unfunded CentrePointe development. Each fight was marked by conflicting views about what makes an old building or neighborhood worth saving.

The experts agreed that situations like Land Between the Lakes and the Rupp Arena parking lot would be handled differently today. I sense that Lexington’s attitudes about historic preservation have come a long way even since 2008, when CentrePointe developer Dudley Webb argued that the 1820s Morton’s Row buildings weren’t worth saving because “it’s not like Lincoln ever shopped there.”

Still, expect many more battles. Policies affecting Lexington historic districts and rural farmland are always controversial. City officials are considering new downtown design guidelines that likely will encourage more preservation.

Are Lexington’s remaining, century-old shotgun houses worth preserving? If so, how can preservation be balanced with the need for safe, affordable low-income housing? Will historic black hamlets continue to disappear, as Pralltown and Little Georgetown have in the shadow of the UK campus and Blue Grass Airport?

The present always is caught between the past and the future, and the balancing act is never easy.

UK design project confirmed for European exhibit

May 4, 2011

The University of Kentucky’s College of Design received confirmation Wednesday that its project, Kentucky River Cities: Louisville, Paducah, Henderson, will be included in the 5th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam next April.

“It’s a big deal to be included,” Michael Speaks, dean of the UK College of Design, told me when I wrote this column about the project April 25. “They get a huge number of applications from all over the world.”

The architecture and urban planning exhibition, held every other year in Holland, says it “aspires to stimulate a wider discourse on the relationship between our environments and the quality of our lives.”

The 5th Biennale will explore new ways of planning and creating more sustainable cities.  The exhibition will focus on three cities — Rotterdam, Istanbul and Sao Paulo — but will include other examples of innovation around the world, such as the Kentucky project.

College of Design students and faculty, along with professionals from around the world and UK’s Center for Applied Energy Research, been working with community leaders in Henderson, Louisville and Paducah to research and plan ways of revitalizing industrial riverfront districts to boost the local economies.

UK design college’s River Cities project gets notice

April 25, 2011

How do you turn liabilities into assets, then use them to improve the economy? That is a challenge facing the University of Kentucky’s College of Design and leaders in three Kentucky cities along the Ohio River.

While the work in Henderson, Paducah and Louisville is still in early stages, it could soon get some international attention. UK hopes to receive confirmation next week that its Kentucky River Cities project has been chosen for inclusion in the 5th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam in April 2012.

The architecture and urban planning exhibition, held every other year in Holland, says it “aspires to stimulate a wider discourse on the relationship between our environments and the quality of our lives.” Next year’s Biennale will explore new ways of planning and creating more sustainable cities, which over the next few decades are projected to house 80 percent of the world’s people on less than 3 percent of the earth’s surface.

The exhibition will focus on three cities — Rotterdam, Istanbul, and Sao Paulo, — but will include other examples of innovation around the world. “It’s a big deal to be included,” said Michael Speaks, dean of the UK College of Design. “They get a huge number of applications from all over the world.”

Henk Ovink, director of national spatial planning for the Netherlands and a Biennale organizer, has visited Kentucky three times to speak at the college and observe the River Cities project.

The River Cities project began nearly four years ago as a five-day design workshop in Henderson by the college and the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles, where Speaks then directed the graduate program. Several people from those schools were Henderson natives, and they were trying to help local business and civic leaders imagine how to redesign and revitalize the cities to adapt to the changing economy.

After Speaks moved to UK a year later, “The Henderson Project” was broadened to include other Ohio River cities that face similar issues. Along with local leaders and design professionals, the college is working with UK’s Center for Applied Energy Research and architects from Los Angeles, Detroit, Holland and Norway.

“It’s an opportunity to show that design is not just about aesthetics,” Speaks said. “Good design can be a real economic value-adder, and it can change the economics and cultural makeup of cities.”

UK students also are working on redevelopment ideas for an area of Louisville’s West End near the Ford Motor Co. plant and investigating long-term possibilities for reusing a former uranium enrichment plant in Paducah.

But most of the work has been in Henderson, with a focus on the Henderson Municipal Power & Light Plant No. 1, an old coal-fired plant that was decommissioned a few years ago.

Originally, city leaders thought the power plant needed to be demolished to redevelop the area. But Speaks said that has turned to looking for ways to renovate the huge plant for uses such as a convention center, offices for energy-related companies or even an IMAX movie theater.

“We have tried to make ourselves part of these communities,” Speaks said, by working closely with local leaders to help create design solutions that will meet their needs and achieve their goals.

The River Cities project is an example of how Speaks wants the college to become a state resource, offering design-related help for economic and social issues. Another example is a project that has designed attractive, affordable and energy-efficient homes that can be mass produced at idle houseboat factories around Lake Cumberland. Another idea on the horizon: creating a Kentucky Mayor’s Institute for Design to help local officials with urban planning issues.

This kind of collaboration could have applications far beyond Kentucky, which is why the Biennale is interested in showcasing UK’s work.

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Preservation more about the future than the past

April 5, 2011

Lexington’s historic preservation movement began in 1955. A group of citizens got together to prevent demolition of the Hunt Morgan House after The Thomas Hart/John Bradford House across the street was torn down for a parking lot.

That tragedy showed people the need to preserve buildings associated with the men and women who made Lexington an important early American city.

Lexington’s preservation movement reached another milestone three summers ago. That is when developers demolished 14 commercial buildings dating to 1826 for the CentrePointe tower that has not been built and may never be.

That tragedy showed people a different way to look at historic preservation. Saving old buildings isn’t just about preserving the past or creating museums; it is about remodeling and finding new uses for structures that contribute Lexington’s authenticity, sense of place and collective memory.

Historic preservation students at the University of Kentucky’s College of Design organized a symposium last week to discuss this growing trend in preservation, called adaptive reuse. It attracted a standing-room crowd from across the state.

The conference was held in the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, itself an example of adaptive reuse of a once-neglected building. Originally Lexington’s public library, it shares a corner with the Hunt Morgan and the 56-year-old parking lot where the Hart/Bradford House once stood.

“This is about building on existing assets, not erasing them,” said keynote speaker Roberta Gratz, a New York journalist whose books show how preservation contributes to vibrant cities.

Many of today’s zoning laws, building codes and development norms emerged after World War II. It was an era of cheap oil and automobile-centric design theories that defied all previous human experience.

“There is a lot of mind manipulation that’s gone on for 50 years that we need to undo,” Gratz said. That begins with government incentives that have encouraged demolition and subsidized new construction and sprawl.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to incent what we want,” she said, adding that it often is as much about changing perceptions as laws.

For example, tax incentives that get small businesses to locate in old urban properties would be far cheaper for taxpayers than building more roads and sewers for new suburban development. Renovating buildings is more environmentally friendly than building new structures that often won’t last as long.

Like Lexington, most cities have plenty of downtown parking. It may not be free, but drivers often end up walking shorter distances than they do in mall and strip-center parking lots.

Donovan Rypkema, a Washington, D.C., real estate consultant, pointed out that not tearing down old buildings preserves a city’s options as the economy, people’s needs and real estate markets change. He noted that many young, educated people are moving back to the cities their parents and grandparents left. One reason is that cities’ mix of old and new buildings makes them more interesting places to live.

Part of preservation’s challenge, Rypkema said, is convincing lenders that adaptive reuse is a good investment.  But that is becoming easier, thanks to market forces in many cities. As Gratz noted, New York developers are now getting rich restoring old buildings that preservationists kept them from tearing down just a few years ago.

Other symposium participants included Matthew Kiefer, a Boston real estate lawyer and board president of Historic Boston Inc.;  Bill Weyland, a Louisville developer whose adaptive reuse projects include the Louisville Slugger factory and Glassworks building; and Holly Wiedemann, a Lexington developer who restores old buildings, including many abandoned schools, into attractive affordable housing.

“Preservation is a means to an end,” Kiefer said. “And that end is creating vibrant urban spaces where people want to live and work.”

It was a thought-provoking symposium, and it could not have been held in a more appropriate place. A half-century ago, Gratz Park was in such decline that owners were knocking down buildings like the Hart/Bradford House for parking lots. Now, these homes and commercial buildings are some of Lexington’s most desirable and valuable.

It’s worth thinking: what other future Lexington assets are in danger of being erased?

Design, politics and lessons for Lexington

March 31, 2010

When he was mayor of Owensboro 20 years ago, one of David Adkisson’s goals was to improve the design and look of his community. Adkisson said he quickly discovered that unless he exercised strong leadership, two people had much more influence than he did.

One was the district engineer for Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, because he controlled Owensboro’s main roads. The other was the chief executive of the local electric utility, because he controlled power lines, poles and towers.

“The mayor is perhaps a weak third,” said Adkisson, who is now president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

Adkisson now lives in Lexington, where those observations ring just as true, especially when you consider the Newtown Pike Extension project, foot-dragging on two-way streets downtown and those ugly new power poles on Euclid and Woodland avenues.

Design isn’t just about making cities look better; it’s about making them function better. And it’s too important to be left to chance and engineering. That was the message of a symposium Saturday at the Downtown Public Library that focused on the intersection of architecture, urban design and politics.

The symposium was sponsored by the University of Kentucky College of Design. As usual, The college’s dean, Michael Speaks, brought in some world-class talent to fuel the discussion.

Henk Ovink is director of national spatial planning and research, design and strategy for the Dutch Ministry of Environment and one of the most important planners in the Netherlands. Aaron Betsky, director of the Cincinnati Art Museum and author of a dozen books, has an extensive background in international design and architecture.

Casey Jones is a leading architect and urban planner who was appointed last August as director of the U.S. General Services Administration’s Design Excellence Program. He is a key player in America’s biggest real estate development organization, which oversees 400 million square feet of federal office space in 2,000 communities.

Jones talked about how, before World War II, the federal government’s philosophy was that public buildings should be well-designed structures that inspired citizens. After 1949, when oversight of federal buildings moved from the Treasury Department to the GSA, the emphasis shifted to cost and schedule. The result was mediocre architecture that often detracted from communities.

The GSA created the Design Excellence Program in 1994 to try to make new government buildings more functional, more “aspirational” and more environmentally friendly. The program brings innovation and new talent representing “the finest contemporary American architectural thought” to federal construction projects.

Some of the most interesting discussion occurred during a panel that the presenters had with three Kentuckians: Adkisson; Paul Kaplan of the Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet, which has set some of the nation’s most ambitious standards for environmentally friendly design of new state buildings; and Holly Wiedemann, whose Lexington-based AU Associates restores old buildings for affordable housing.

Betsky said America must break its costly addiction to sprawl and the ethic that “land is something to be developed” and become more creative about reusing old urban areas.

He and Wiedemann said that, too often, development is an adversarial process of conflict on the back end rather than brainstorming on the front-end and collaboration among all stakeholders throughout the process. Economics is always an issue, they said, but good design doesn’t have to be more expensive, especially when long-term value is considered.

Betsky and Jones said design professionals must be more proactive about showing citizens, businesses and government leaders design possibilities they would never have imagined. Public architecture competitions are one good way to do that, Jones noted.

All of the panelists said well-designed development depends on citizens demanding excellence and government officials providing leadership. And, as Adkisson noted, political leaders making the case that excellent design is good for economic development.

It was similar to the message that Joseph Riley, the nine-term mayor of Charleston, S.C., delivered a month ago: Successful cities plan well and demand excellence.

It’s a message that Lexington needs to embrace. Because so much about Lexington has always been good, there’s often no urgency about trying to do better, little interest in innovation beyond the status quo.

“Lexington has the blessing and curse of being a wonderful place to live,” Adkisson said. “The curse is that it stifles aspiration.”