Friday, September 13, 2013

The Baltimore Avenue Camel

Omar Blaik of U3 Ventures brought his Baltimore Avenue project to the community with a novel concept: Ask the community what they want. 

Of course this idea is only novel in its ability to leapfrog a community that will inevitably beg the question, "well are you happier with nothing at all?"

The concept isn't new, and Blaik's use of it is likely more psychological than it is an attempt to truly field community opinion.  

It's still risky. 

We employ professionals for a reason: urban planners, architects, developers. When we hire amateurs to design we wind up with The Homer.

When a group of people who have nothing in common other than free time and something to complain about collaborate, we wind up with something known as a "camel," or a horse designed by a committee.

Parks & Recreation poked fun at urban planning with an example of the camel, when a group of city employees and "concerned citizens" all pitched in to design a mural. This is what happened.
Of course Blaik also risked never seeing his camel. Anyone who's ever been to a community meeting knows what kind of people would jump at Blaik's offer.

They're not fun people. 

They also don't work quickly. People who have time to go to community meetings have time.

In Inga Saffron's article on the subject, she cites the program established a decade ago by PennPraxis to develop a cohesive plan for the Central Delaware Waterfront as a nod to this type of community involvement, but fails to emphasize that it was developed a decade ago

Where are we with that?  

The Central Delaware Waterfront isn't a cohesive collection of neighborhood input and rainbow farts. In fact, it's just as bad as it's always been. Hell, the communal organization that rallied around PennPraxis can't even decide on a master plan. Instead they hold a yearly "show us your cool rendering, everyone" contest, piss away a few hundred grand, and maybe hang a new banner on the west end of their aerial tram to nowhere.

The only changes that have taken place on the Central Delaware Waterfront in the last decade are where developers have managed to defy the Motley Crue of amateur urban planners that run it.

SugarHouse and Waterfront Square sit fortressed from the city behind gates and parking lots while the amateur planners someone decided to put in charge continue to shoot down respectably integrated midrises that don't jive with the organization's nonexistent master plan. 

That's what happens when you put concerned citizens in charge. That's why we have professionals. The Central Delaware Waterfront will be lucky if it ever sees its camel.

Fortunately for Blaik, his experiment in community involvement will just land him with some boring townhouses. He's a developer and primarily concerned with making money, so he's not going to sit around and push paper like a city planner.

U3's Horse
What's disconcerting is the notion that this concept should be the future of urban planning. How can you expect more than the lowest common denominator when you ask a group of nurses, students, teachers, auto mechanics, military retirees, and housewives to design and plan a building? 

Of all people, our more artistic critics should see the potentially bland skyline of a city designed by a collection of its residents, instead of those schooled in design.

Could you see something designed by Frank Furness or Erdy-McHenry offered up on the chopping block of a town hall discussion?

Obviously community involvement is important, and our neighborhood coalitions do a fine job routinely reminding us just how involved they are in dictating creative control of our cityscape. 

That leaves our creative critics to address the need for exciting design that might not always appeal to absolutely everyone, advocating on the part of architects and artists with, "love it or hate it, you'll learn to live with it." 

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