Monday, January 12, 2015

State Hospital North Campus and Corbusier's Radiant City both Retreat from Sidewalk

Recently folks over at SCV have raised the alarum over the prospect of demolition at the North State Hospital Campus.

It's something to watch, but maybe not something for the highest defcon level.

There are a number of things in play with the prospect of demolition, but one factor that so far has not got sufficient attention is the deployment of the buildings on the superblock.

North State Hospital Campus
I'm not talking about the forms of the buildings themselves, how high they are, how beautiful or ugly they are, or their functions, how easily or difficult they might be converted to one use or another.

I'm just talking about how they are set in two-dimensional space on the block. How you might arrange them on board game surface.

Half of Belluschi's Breitenbush Hall - A shallow strip, super wide
and a good distance from the sidewalk across a lawn
One fact is significant: They're really far from the street. They are deployed on an internally-oriented park-like campus.

I want to suggest this could be a near-fatal defect for several of them.

The Radiant City as Parallel

Sketch for housing project, circa 1922 - Le Corbusier
Much of our mid-century "urban renewal" was focused on bulldozing "blight" and erecting mid-rise and high-rise blocks set on park-like campuses. The movement had its roots in utopian ideas, the "Radiant City," of Le Corbusier.

The most famous expression of these ideas was Pruitt-Igoe, a spectacular failure and now demolished.

Pruitt-Igoe housing project - via Wikipedia
The North State Hospital Campus is not going to be a "public housing" project - and it is risky I suppose even to mention this, since "multi-family housing" or "density" can become NIMBY code for "crime."

But it is interesting that the mid-century building Eola Hall shares the same building type and form! Mid-rise tower on a park.

Eola Hall on north campus of State Hospital
(via University of Oregon)
In fact, while the older masonry buildings don't look like concrete modernist towers, they are all set away from the street in a grassy park, rather like the buildings in the Radiant City. I don't want to go overboard in pushing the parallel, since the plan really arises as an extension of the Kirkbride plan from across the street, but the basic deployment in space is basically the same in both.

Building Masses set on Parks Don't Work very Well

A major problem with buildings set away from streets on grassy parks is that while they might look pretty, they are less safe and inviting. They lack circulation and eyes and ears.

Dome Building in the fall
It happens we have a notorious unsolved murder at the Dome Building that involves precisely this problem.

It may be that the current site configuration is less safe than an adjusted one with meaningful blocks of new construction. I'm pretty sure it's less inviting.

The single response to the State's RFP (somebody should publish at least its outline so that it can be debated more publicly, hint, hint!) generated a concept that may not have enough housing and would have too much car-dependent campus:
Salem Community Vision visualizes adaptive reuse of the buildings into maybe another exciting adaptive reuse project like Edgefield (McMenamins Edgefield in Troutdale) plus a higher education campus, and some senior housing. The recreation area (park) at the northwest should be retained. The wonderful trees should be preserved. There is room for low rise housing carefully sited in the trees at the north east portion of the site. One building on Center Street could have small neighborhood shops, restaurants, and small businesses. An incubator for entrepreneurs is needed, and there is room for that. The center could well become a neighborhood center and one of the attractive places to visit in Salem like the Willamette Heritage Center. [from SCV]
It seems unlikely, though, that "small neighborhood shops, restaurants, and small businesses" would thrive in buildings so far away from the street. This could be like the Eugene pedestrian mall fiasco, something that looked wonderful on paper but turned out to have real circulation problems.

The Civic Center, Pringle Plaza, and the Millrace downtown are definitely less active and inviting because of gaps to the sidewalks and edges - even though the path system on paper looks like a wonderful place to stroll.

Millrace Park, the Civic Center, and Pringle Plaza
lack activity because they hide from the sidewalk
And if you think the parking lot at the Blind School is a problem, car-dependent, destination uses like a "higher education campus" will gobble even more of the site for surface parking. And with the buildings' configuration, that would likely mean our stripmall plan that so dominates our major arterials: Setting buildings well behind the parking lots that are adjacent to the street. There's not room in the center, so it would need to go on the edges by the sidewalks.

This fact about the way these buildings are located internally on the site needs much more consideration, and from here looks like a near-fatal defect on many of them. Reusing the embodied carbon in buildings is always the greenest solution of course, but these buildings were never knit into an urban or neighborhood fabric, complete with internal and external circulation patterns. And they will need lots of work and hazardous material abatement. One person with knowledge has noted that all the windows on the Belluschi building would need to be replaced, every one of them, because they were locked and immovable for security reasons.

Another Asylum Restoration

Some have appealed to the example of Traverse City. The Village at Grand Traverse Commons is a fascinating project, with many parallels here.

Traverse City
The Kirkbride building there is being restored in a much grander way than ours was here. But look at the state highway and green separating the project from the city's grid. This looks like a much car-dependent, suburban redevelopment. It would be interesting to learn how often people from the grid east of the highway walk up to the new development. Is it really knit into the city? Or is it its own destination thing apart from the city?

Our restored Kirkbride asylum building in winter
(The walnuts are dying from "thousand canker disease")
The Traverse project might actually be more like the Fairview project than the State Hospital one. Here folks might find in the shared Kirkbride buildings - the form of the buildings - too much of a false rhyme. And it is important to note that the Kirkbride building itself - the "asylum"! - offers marketing frisson and narrative just not available in the buildings on the north campus. (I don't think Department of Corrections corruption is quite the right hook!)

Process, not Demolition, is the Problem

A year ago, neighborhood advocates suggested that the planning process was neither very public nor very robust.

January 2014
The failures at the Blind School they noted stand in even higher relief today.

If resisting a demolition at the State Hospital is a maneuver to get a better public process for an orderly sale and development, that might be a good thing.

But if folks are really wedded to the current buildings and site map, well, they should give that more thought. Digging in on preserving all of the buildings may reduce the likelihood that any one of them will be a great success.

In a slightly different but still related context Jeff Speck says, "Pick your winners," and I suspect that means being ready to cull some of the lesser buildings at the north campus site.

(For all notes on the OSH North Campus see here.)


Susann Kaltwasser said...

The North Campus situation echoes the same kind of backdoor dealings that the Blind School sale did. apparenlty the State of Oregon just can't seem to do anything in the open. DAS had a process that seemed above board, but then local politicians got invovled and now it has all gone 'dark.'

Some of what is being discussed by SCV is insider information that they are trying to bring to light, so that the process can be brought out in the open.

Senators Courtney and Winters are powerful people as is Clem, but they need to be listening to the citizens who will be most impacted rather than City leaders who want what they want no matter what is best for the locals.

My fear is that a 'deal' will be struck behind closed doors and the community will be the victim once again of some 'grand plan'.

As to the hazards of the materials in the buildings I am told that mitigating them in place is far better than bulldozing the area and then having to find a new location for the materials. Most of the asbestos materials go to the old demolition landfill down by Minto-Brown Park. That area floods regularly and ground seepage into the Willamette River is not monitored as well as it should be. We would be trading one problem for another at a very high cost.

Why would legislators want to spend $16 million in this weak economy on tearing something down to benefit Salem? There was an offer to buy the property for $4 million as is.

The State could do the seismic upgrades to both the Marion and Center Street bridges for that price! At least you would get something for you money other than a barren piece of land.

I don't see how a developer is going to pay $16 million for a piece of property with a dubious future. Then put in a $100 million development on it as the Mayor seems to think will happen.

Sometimes reality is not part of the decision making process here in this City!s

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Interesting from Salem Weekly - Bartholomew's Yaquina Hall and not Belluschi's Breitenbush is #2 on the list:

"[P]reservationists, [Hazel] Patton says, must assess which buildings are most important, which most reusable and which have the most integrity and historical value. “In a perfect world we would save all the buildings. But it’s not that kind of world, so you have to focus on those buildings that fit that criteria – and on the North Campus they are the Dome building and Yaquina Hall building… these two have been occupied continuously.”