The power of visions

February 2nd, 2006 § Comments off § permalink

Ken Greenberg, one of North America’s most gifted urban designers, isn’t shy about high rises. Tonight at UC Berkeley, he gave a talk that focused on how cities can create great public spaces and attract high-quality private development by developing a vision that the public supports; implementing it in the public spaces that it controls; and insisting that private developers follow suit. Much of his audience was composed of mayors from Central Valley cities, most of which are about as suburban as it gets, but Greenberg showed them examples from major metropolitan centers, including Vancouver, Saint Paul, Boston, and Toronto. I have no idea what the mayors thought of, say, the residential towers in Coal Harbour, and sadly, there was no chance to ask them (nor, perhaps, would it have been prudent to do so). They’re in Berkeley for a workshop about city design, which will take place over the next few days. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for those meetings. Of course, Greenberg’s point wasn’t that it was appropriate to build 40-story towers in, say, Fairfield; it was that cities can create urbanity and lively centers when they value those qualities enough to insist upon them.

One of the techniques that Greenberg emphasized is putting forward a really great concept at the very start of the planning process, something that captures people’s imaginations and gains widespread support (ideally with some juicy watercolor renderings to back it up). In Saint Paul, for example, the architect Ben Thompson provided a vision in 1992 of the city as a “Great River Park,” oriented towards the Mississippi River. The vision continues to inspire new plans, and actual development, today.

Of course, it takes more than just a great vision to make change happen; lots of different people, even just within a city, have to get on board. In Saint Paul, a powerful nonprofit, the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation, started a design center where city officials and staff mingled and informally discussed how the goals of traffic engineering, public works, and urban design could fit together. I don’t know that that organization could be replicated elsewhere, but it’s an interesting example of how public officials can move past the political divisiveness and differences in professional training that often keep city departments from working in concert with one another.

As I left campus after the talk, I was delighted to see how foggy it was outside. I love foggy nights; they create a wonderfully noirish atmosphere in even the most banal places. Every cobra head streetlight becomes pregnant with meaning. I pedaled away from campus and flew down Telegraph Avenue on my bicycle, watching the wet mist swirl about in floating pools of light.

Baby, I can drive your car

January 30th, 2006 § One comment § permalink

I’m chagrined to announce that after eleven years of resisting the idea, I’m now licensed to drive in the state of California. Yes, it’s true. I took my driving test at the Claremont DMV in Oakland this afternoon and passed with flying colors.

And no, I don’t plan to buy a car, now or in the future. I only got the license for my job, which sometimes requires that I travel to far-off cities (and nearby cities with terrible transit service); a borrowed or rented car works fine for that. I haven’t ruled out City CarShare, but since I won’t be eligible to join until I’ve had my license for a couple of years, I have a while to consider that option.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go ride my bike.

Shockingly, no lifeguard was on duty

January 4th, 2006 § Comments off § permalink

This was the highlight of my day: A woman was searching for her shopping companion in Berkeley Bowl‘s cavernous produce section. She didn’t see him, so she yelled, “Marco!” Several people immediately replied, “Polo!”

Pimp my density

November 13th, 2005 § Comments off § permalink

I decided to apply a little city planning analysis to my current residence. Here’s what I learned:

I live in a 16-unit apartment complex, with 12 studios and 4 one-bedrooms. There are 10 parking spaces, or 0.63 parking spaces per unit. It’s built on a 9,757 square foot parcel, according to Oakland’s parcel map, for a net density of 71 dwelling units per acre. (For comparison, a typical suburb with detached single-family homes would have about five dwelling units per acre. North Beach, in San Francisco, has about 100 dwelling units per acre.)

The buildings in the complex have two stories and are about thirty feet tall. The buildings’ total footprint on the ground is about 4,610 square feet; since they’re all two stories, its floor-area ratio is 0.94.

In a typical apartment building, 20 percent of the space on each floor is used for shared hallways and the like. Assuming that’s true in my complex, the average unit would be about 460 square feet. My own apartment, which is a studio, is about 400 square feet including the closets.

Based on a quick look at Oakland’s zoning ordinance, my apartment complex conforms to most of the current zoning regulations, even though it’s about 70 years old. That means that it could be rebuilt more or less as-is if it were destroyed (although the owners would need a conditional use permit for a multi-family building, and they would almost certainly change the floor plans to remove some of the buildings’ less-charming eccentricities).

Then again, plenty of churches serve cheap wine from a jug

October 19th, 2005 § Comments off § permalink

My sample ballot for California’s upcoming Colossal Waste of Taxpayer Money Special Statewide Election says that my polling place is the “Shattuck Ave Meth Church.” Something tells me they’re about to get their tax-exempt status revoked.

Turning pro

September 23rd, 2005 § Comments off § permalink

The past week has been incredibly hectic, but because of something positive—I’m starting a job next week! I’ve been hired by a consulting firm in Berkeley that does city planning work for various Bay Area cities. My job will focus on urban design, which is a tough field to summarize, but I’ll try: Urban designers focus on making cities attractive and functional for the people who use them. At a small scale, that could mean adding trees and benches to a street or requiring the first floors of buildings to have windows instead of blank walls. At a large scale, that could mean using height regulations to sculpt a city’s skyline or organizing new development around major transportation corridors. Sorry if that sounds nebulous; I’m still working on my elevator story for urban design.

Anyhow, I’ve taken advantage of my last week of unemployment to run as many errands as humanly possible, including the acquisition of what amounts to an entirely new wardrobe (and yes, a great deal of it is black; surprise, surprise). But I’ve had fun as well. On Wednesday, my friend Paula and I went to the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco to see Sean Hayes and Jolie Holland, both of whom were excellent. Last night, a bunch of friends and I went to the Latin American Club to celebrate my new job. And today, my friend Thomas and I took a walking tour of hidden public spaces in downtown San Francisco, about which I’ll post more later.

Now I’m going to spend a few minutes adjusting to the idea that I’m going to be in an actual office all day on Monday. I’ll hold off for now on thinking about Tuesday through Friday, since I don’t want to shock my system.

Good luck improving on “Fjällviva”

September 15th, 2005 § Comments off § permalink

I went to Ikea this morning and purchased new bedding and a potato masher. Help me think of a humorous and/or erotic story that explains this combination. (Extra credit: Invent funny Ikea names for the products I purchased.)

How Jefe got his groove back

August 18th, 2005 § Five comments § permalink

I should have mentioned sooner that my cooking troubles are behind me, and that I ended them not with a sure thing but a gamble: a rosemary sorbet, the recipe for which I found in The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook. My anemic little Cuisinart ice cream maker (on loan from a friend) even yielded somewhat better textural results than usual, though not nearly good enough to stop me from lusting after a much fancier machine.

Anyhow, the rosemary sorbet is easy to make: Put 2 1/4 cups of water and 1/2 cup sugar in a small saucepan and bring them to a boil, stirring occasionally until the sugar dissolves. Stir in 1/2 cup chopped fresh rosemary and remove from the heat. Steep the mixture until the rosemary flavor is fairly strong, 20 to 40 minutes. (Remember, it will taste less strong after you freeze it; just don’t let it get too piney-tasting.) Strain the mixture and discard the rosemary. Put the liquid in the fridge for a few hours, then run it through the ice cream maker and put it in the freezer until it’s firm.

I suspect this would be lovely with some buttery, bready thing like pound cake. Jack Bishop suggested pairing it with strawberries and pineapple, or with a warm apple tart.

My cooking woes continue

August 11th, 2005 § 10 comments § permalink

At the time, last week’s failed pickling attempt seemed like a minor setback. It has since grown into a full-blown New Recipe Slump. Yesterday, I attempted to make hummus, but I was doomed from the start by my lack of a food processor. After a great deal of effort spent on breaking up chickpeas with a fork and mashing them with an improvised mortar and pestle, I created a beige substance with decent flavor and a revoltingly chunky texture. This morning’s cooking experiment was a recipe for quick pickled carrots, which turned out to be edible but rather dull.

Now I need to get my confidence back up, so I think I’ll look through my recipe binder tonight and see if I can find a sure thing—perhaps a refreshing summer beverage of some sort. I can still toast bagels and boil pasta without difficulty, so at least I won’t starve.

Peter Franus, you’ve done it again

August 5th, 2005 § Seven comments § permalink

As if to compensate for the recent margarita-swilling escapades, my leisure activities this week have been distressingly wholesome. For example, I bought Kirby cucumbers at the farmers’ market and tried, but failed, to make fresh pickles; alas, my brine proved insufficiently briny. I’ll try again next week, possibly with green beans rather than cucumbers. (This experiment was the first in a new series, in which I will try to stop being lazy about purchasing things at the store that can just as well be made at home. Next up: hummus. And there might be some canning before I’m through. Look out, people.)

Oh, but the virtue doesn’t stop there. I also got a card for the Oakland Public Library; sold a few unneeded possessions on eBay; attended a going-away party for an old friend; and cleared away the piles of paper in my office. What’s going on here? I’m a young, city-dwelling, single male who can pass as a hipster in dim light, and yet I’m sitting at home on a Friday night, updating my weblog and sipping a minerally Sauvignon Blanc with a pronounced note of grapefruit. Shouldn’t I be drinking Jack Daniels and trashing a hotel room somewhere instead?

Well, I suppose that wild abandon has never really been my métier, as evidenced by my use of the word “métier.” For this week, at least, I’ll have to settle for the simpler pleasures of responsible adulthood.

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