Category Archives: Downtown

Wayfinding And Preservation In A Small Town

Over the weekend I visited Price for work. While I was there saw some interesting examples of urban development in a small town.

Perhaps most notably, Price has some wayfinding in its downtown:

A map of downtown Price, in downtown Price.

A map of downtown Price, in downtown Price.

This map isn’t fancy or professionally sourced, but it’s better than what many cities have — including currently Provo, for some reason.

This isn’t to say Price is a walkability or tourist paradise. In reality, I saw almost no one walking around while I was there. But it’s nice to see the city make the effort, and this map really was all I needed to orient myself. In the end something is always better than nothing.

Another thing that stood out from Price was this ornate building:

A building in downtown Price.

A building in downtown Price.

This building is fancier and more interesting than most, maybe even all, of Provo’s comparable historic structures. It needs some new paint in a few places (ironically) but the faces in particular are quite impressive.

From this I glean two lessons: first, that small towns sometimes have the most impressive old buildings and, second, that growing towns experiencing relative prosperity (e.g. Provo) are often the ones that lose their historic buildings.

As I’ve written many times before, European tourist towns are a good example of this phenomenon; the old medieval villages we all love to visit today stayed the same for centuries because they experienced hundreds of years of decline, even poverty. During that time there was low demand for land and new development, so the old buildings remained untouched. On the other hand, a place like Manhattan — which was filled with smaller but still substantial historic structures before Provo even existed — prospered and eventually replaced most of it’s little buildings from 18th and early 19th century.

Comparing Price and Provo offers a similar, if accelerated and smaller example. In terms of infrastructure and architecture, Price’s downtown is very similar to Provo’s but more complete and unified. Despite it’s considerably small size, it has nearly as many old buildings and fewer appear to have been torn down. There are no big, ugly newer buildings in the mix, as there are in Provo.

But Price is smaller and not experiencing the kind of growth Provo gets. Hence, the better preserved downtown.

There are ways make sure historic preservation and growth don’t become mutually exclusive, but in the end greater prosperity almost always means changes to the built environment.

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Filed under Downtown, economics, travel, utah

Grace, History and the Role of Buildings

I’m currently reading John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice and last night I came to several passages that bear on the discussion about the importance of building durable, beautiful buildings generally.

In Chapter 2 of Volume 1, Ruskin sets out to explain how to see which architecture is good and which is bad. He presents two criteria:

…we require from buildings, as from men, two kinds of goodness: first, the doing their practical duty well: then that they be graceful and pleasing in doing it; which last is itself another form of duty.

This is a simple even obvious set of criteria, and yet so many buildings fail it. I’m thinking of this idea in the context of a building like Provo’s city hall, which after a mere 40 years is completely falling apart. Clearly, it has failed in it’s “practical duty” if it can’t outlive a pair of Toyotas.

But entire cities of modern buildings also fail this test. My parents suburban tract home, for example, is sliding off a hill along with the rest of their city. I will almost certainly outlive their house. And how many suburbs of Las Vegas or Phoenix  are both poorly built and entirely graceless?

In any case, Ruskin goes on to argue that buildings also have another function:

…talking, as the duty of monuments or tombs, to record facts and express feelings; or of churches, temples, public edifices, treated as books of history, to tell such history clearly and forcibly.

In other words, buildings record the past and “speak” a story.

The Zion's Bank Building in Provo.

The Zion’s Bank Building in Provo.

This seems to be one of the things we have forgotten in many of our modern buildings. What story are we trying to tell with any of the buildings that have been built in Provo in the last generation? When I look at something like the Zion’s Bank Building, I can only assume we’re trying to tell the world that we’re cheap and tasteless.

Ruskin’s point is especially important because it offers a reason to build that isn’t rooted in the cold economics of post-recession America; in the end (and as a comment pointed out on yesterday’s post) buildings shouldn’t always have to make money.

If they did, or if that was what mattered most, we wouldn’t have inspiring places like St. Peter’s Square or the Berlin Wall art installation.

St. Peter's Square in the Vatican. This is designed to "speak"  well.

St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. This is designed to “speak” well.

The Berlin Wall isn't a building, but it is a piece of the built environment that is more concerned with what it "speaks" than with economic concerns.

The Berlin Wall isn’t a building, but it is a piece of the built environment that is more concerned with what it “speaks” than with economic concerns.

These are spaces that tell stories rather than generate revenue. And that’s a much higher calling.

A few paragraphs later, Ruskin brings his various criteria into a convenient, three-point list:

1. That it act well, and do the things it was intended to do in the best way.
2. That it speak well, and say the things it was intended to say in the best words.
3. That it look well, and please us by its presence, whatever it has to do or say.

Ruskin offers these points as evaluation tools; he’s trying to establish a way to judge existing buildings.

But for growing cities in Utah and elsewhere, they also offer a kind of very basic checklist or starting point. As we consider which buildings are worth saving and how to begin new ones, these are some of the first issues we should be bringing up.

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Filed under building, Downtown

Remember, Provo Needs A New City Hall

My former colleague Genelle Pugmire reported over the weekend that the city council is preparing to discuss a bunch of issues. Some are surprising — how long shaved ice stands can operate? really? — but at least one could use a fairly radical approach:

Items on the work agenda include:

• Discussion of the city center — The 40-year-old city center has size and seismic issues that need to be addressed.

As I argued in this post, Provo could actually use an entirely new city hall. The issue is that there aren’t just seismic problems, there is an array of structural and cosmetic failings that would require considerable investment to fix. At the same time, interest rates and construction costs are cheap so there’s no time like the present to build something better.

The current city center is literally falling apart.

The current city center is also a fairly… unsatisfying structure, architecturally, to say the least. Set back from the street and hidden by retaining walls, it’s easy to forget what it looks like, or that it even exists. It’s one of the few buildings on center street for which I cannot visualize a profile; like much of the architecture of it’s era, it’s a formless, indistinct structure.

In this post, I argue that a great city deserves a great city hall, and Provo certainly doesn’t have anything very impressive right now. Typically, I like to make economic arguments here because most people can come together to agree that efficiency is a good thing. But buildings are also an expression of civic pride; they embody and convey a community’s sense of self and values. And unfortunately, the current city center tells the world that  Provo is a dumpy little town.

A great city deserves a great city hall, like this one in Pasadena, not the building Provo current has, which looks like a run down dentist’s office.

That’s a subjective argument, I know, but the point is that if Provo is ever going to build a new city hall — and it surely will someday — now is the time to do it.

Genelle’s article also mentions one other thing worth bringing up here:

• The 50-plus initiative — The city Strike Force Committee will present its Provo 50-plus initiative, which includes a vision for Provo for the next 50 years.

I love the idea of looking 50 years down the road. It’s why I hope the city builds a new city hall, and does many of the other things I argue for here; in the end we need to be thinking about what will make more vibrant for many generations to come.

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Filed under building, Downtown

Central Bank Update

Last week I wrote about the need for aesthetic diversity in a city and gave an example of old and new architecture mixing in a Salt Lake neighborhood. One curious example of this phenomenon that’s playing out right now in Provo is the Central Bank remodel on the corner of University Ave and 100 North.

As of about a week ago, this is what it looked like:

Central Bank is renovating the facades of it's buildings in Provo.

Central Bank is renovating the facades of it’s buildings in Provo.

Eventually, this group of buildings will have a historically-influenced look.

Eventually, this group of buildings will have a historically-influenced look.

One of the most interesting things about this project is the historic brick that has been uncovered on this building.

One of the most interesting things about this project is the historic brick that has been uncovered on this building.

This post shows the project at an earlier stage, and this post includes a sketch of the final product.

The interesting thing about this project is that it’s taking a hodgepodge of older buildings and uniting them with one single facade. My impression is that reaction in the community to this project is positive, though I know a number of people who lament the fact that the modern building on the corner will become something less firmly rooted in any particular architectural style.

I’m grateful that Central Bank is investing in the community, though I also wonder at the faux-historical final product. The great thing about downtown Provo, or most genuinely interesting places, is that they’re not knockoffs or replicas of something else, historical or otherwise. That’s why downtown Provo is better than, say, “lifestyle” suburbs like Daybreak that merely imitate an organic city. It’s why visiting Paris or New Orleans is vastly more rewarding, to say the least, than going to Las Vegas or Disneyland, respectively.

All of this is to say that perhaps we should more critically consider the wisdom of mixing pseudo-historical buildings into  actually-old architecture that embodies our heritage. The Central Bank project — which is not terrible by any means and may be quite nice in the end — offers an occasion to reflect on whether or not we want our city to be a living, evolving record of each generation’s greatest works, or a generic version of the past that could have been built anywhere.

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Filed under building, construction, Downtown

Tabernacle Temple Update

My former colleague Genelle Pugmire reported over the weekend that the LDS Church has filed “800 pages  of descriptions, elevations, floor plans and landscaping” about the under-construction Provo Tabernacle Temple/City Center Temple. When I first began reading I was skeptical — I’ve written repeatedly that we shouldn’t be so sure the project will revitalize downtown — but by the end of the article I was genuinely excited.

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The Provo Tabernacle in mid 2012

For starters, Josh Yost with the city — who is brilliant — is quoted as saying the church is going to great lengths to preserve the structure. I trust Josh, so I trust that this project is actually being done right.

Among the more exciting features is a “17-foot bronze four-tiered Victorian fountain with ornamental nozzles,” fence posts topped with Beehives, extensive landscaping with less surface parking, and a two story pavilion for taking pictures and waiting around.

In addition, some of the grounds will remain open all the time:

“The entire temple grounds will be beautifully landscaped and will be open to the public following the temple’s operations schedule, consistent with all LDS temples. The grounds closest to the temple will have a taller fence and gates, whereas the grounds both north and south of the temple fence will have lower perimeter fencing and are not gated,” Hall added.

Public gardens with benches, shrubs, trees and grass will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week on the north end of the property, similar to the old tabernacle park. There also will be gardens on the west side of the temple where the current Nu Skin parking terrace is located.

Keeping some of the grounds open all the time — in addition to lower fences, etc.  — will help the temple avoid becoming a spatial black hole as other temples are in other cities.

The article states that the project was originally going to be done in 2015, though that deadline is apparently not fixed due to the complexity of dealing with the building’s historic character.

The Provo Tabernacle on Dec. 17, 2010, as it was burning down.

The Provo Tabernacle on Dec. 17, 2010, as it was burning down.

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Filed under construction, Development, Downtown, Mormon, Provo Tabernacle

Streets Are Like Sentences, Or, Making Walking Less Annoying

Walkability is about more than safe, interesting streets lined with potential destinations — though those things are extremely important. It’s also about eliminating the little pressure points that annoy people and make them wish they weren’t walking in the first place. In other words, much like sentences, streets need to be “edited” not just for big things but for the little problems as well.

I’ll try to touch on various little pedestrian problems in the future, but for now note the cross walk buttons in the picture below. For some reason, one of them has been placed in an illogical and difficult-to-find spot.

A crosswalk in Salt Lake City.

A crosswalk in Salt Lake City, looking west.

In the picture above, the green arrow points to the East-West crosswalk.

But bafflingly, the button to trigger the signal for that crosswalk is located on the poll near the North-South crosswalk. It’s marked by the red arrow and is a good 20 feet from the crosswalk it serves.

The button may have been installed on that distant post to save money — though Provo has installed separate posts in some places that’s clearly more expensive — but that still doesn’t explain why it faces North, away from the correct crosswalk.

The same intersection, looking north.

The same intersection, looking north.

The picture above further illustrates the problem: one crosswalk button, marked by the red arrow, is easy to find. The other button, however, is on the other side of the pole (north) and almost as far from the crosswalk it serves — marked by a green arrow — as it can be. Just putting it on the side of the pole facing the photo (south) would have been a huge improvement.

These sorts of things are like typos; people don’t stop moving when they hit them but they do momentarily slow down. And the problem is particularly bad in Utah, where large streets create huge street corners; when I walked up to this intersection it took me at least three times as long to find the button as it would have at a better-designed spot. It was a brief pressure point that didn’t need to exist.

People won’t give up walking as a result of little errors like this. But they will be annoyed, if only subtly. And that’s unfortunate because the emotional memory they’ll have from walking will be negative.

The point is that a good street should be like most forms of good writing: it should blend into the background and let the user flow from one point to the next. Exceptional beauty can stand out, but both writing and city design fail when the mechanics become clunky and slow or when they call too much attention to themselves.

Finally, note how in these pictures there aren’t actually many people on the street; that’s the best evidence of all that the design of this street isn’t working. With better “editing,” streets like these should become more lively and pleasurable to use.

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Filed under commuting, Downtown

Central Bank update

On my way to work this morning I saw the construction site at Central Bank on the corner of University and 100 North. This picture seems to illustrate how the new building will mostly be a remodel of existing structures.

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Filed under construction, Development, Downtown