Thursday, December 14, 2006

The sentimental edifice

The publicness of public projects assumes that everyone is a stakeholder, but politics makes some stakeholders more equal than others. From the London Free Press:

A proposed expansion of London's police station will be an eyesore unless city council spends more than $34 million it has already committed, residents and business owners say.

… [N]eighbours in the Old East Village who support the expansion told a council committee last night they're repulsed by the proposed design, which features a windowless wall to the west, a lot of parking in the front and a facade that fails to hide the boxy structure behind.

"We'd like it rendered less like a modern, suburban mall," said Phil Singeris, who chairs the Old East Village Business Improvement Area.

The city should invest enough in the design to make the police headquarters an attractive gateway to the village, said Annecke Somann, president of the Old East Village Community Association.
If form follows function, what will "an attractive gateway to the village" reveal about the function of a police station? The answer, of course, is whatever we feel like it to be; politics is a competition for sentiment, and sentiment must usually be the guiding principle in public decision-making. But if attractiveness is the criterion in this case, have Singeris and Somann even looked around at the rest of the intersection of Dundas and Adelaide? It begs for demolition, if an attractive gateway is what's wanted. Typically, the "neighbours" are trying to get someone else to pay for something that they're not willing to do for themselves. If that fails, they could try painting some murals of windows on the walls, like the hideous unartistic depictions that grace some of the surrounding structures.


Jake said...

So the East Village Business Association wants the new station to "blend in" and "look esthetically-pleasing". What kind of "sophisticated clientele" are they trying to impress other than the panhandlers and methadone recipients who frequent the area? These morons should look at the endless supply of pawn shops, payday loans, thrift stores, and social welfare agencies along Dundas Street. Believe me, the proposed new police station as it looks now is a luxury palace when compared to the former. If they want it to 'blend in' with the neighbourhood, the city should instead put in boarded-up windows, a 'pawn shop/payday loan' sign on the front entrance, and let all the methadone clinic bums panhandle out front. Boy, Dundas Street will sure look spiffy then.

Honey Pot said...

You know what the shame of it is? If a developer wanted to come in and rip all those boarded up fallen down buildings, and build something attractive and usable, they would fight to preserve that bunch of old dumps.

OEVBIA will go out and lobby for government grants for the slumlords there to put in crooked windows, and painted plywood fronts, but that is about all they will do.

Pretty sad when Phil Singeris is the chair of the OEVBIA, and he even deserted the area by taking his place of business elsewhere. That doesn't make any sense, but the OEVBIA never has. It is just another taxpayer funded do-nothing munincipal body.

bonnie abzug said...

I'm going to try this and we'll see what happens.....

I certainly don't think the answer to this particular disagreement is to spend more money to fix something that shouldn't have happened in the first place. It's a public building in a city that has shown no inclination to take those minimum precautions (which happen as a matter of course in many, if not most, other places) necessary to head off these types of civic disagreements. There was no consultation at the beginning of the design process. We (and here I use "we" in the city-wide sense, not the local one) were presented with what essentially is a fait accompli by a public agency which has grown accustomed to simply bullying its way to the finish line. (Remember: Bring in my budget at 3.7%? I don't think so, boys. Here's 4.6%. I dare you to touch it. Whatcha' goin' to do?) I'm sure it never occurred to anyone at 601 Dundas Street that the public might have an interest in how the building was going to look - how it fitted in to the streetscape. And that's the real problem here. Because if we can't at least make an effort to do good urban design on our public buildings, then what kind of example are we presenting for the design of private buildings?

It's easy to put down opposition as merely a reversion to "public sentiment". But that is a sword that cuts both ways. And even that isn't as cheap and easy as saying that the current design is an improvement over anything that currently surrounds it. It doesn't require any thought or energy or vision. This building is going to be around for a long time. Such things as ripple-effects, spillovers, synergies, and the like, really do exist.

I would find it hard to believe that even the regular contributors to this site aren't interested in the form of the built environment, all other things being relatively equal. Mpamaster's post, as I remember it, didn't talk about the cost of the project as being a problem. For $34 million, I, for one, feel that we could have had a building that was not only functional (it is a police station, after all,) but was also sympathetic to the aesthetics of the public realm. And it's the precedent that this design reinforces in the minds of us all (but especially in the minds of those people who actually build things) - you know what I'm talking about: "treasure or trash, it doesn't matter to us, so long as it gets built" - that really pisses me off.

Remjer-X said...

Here are my thoughts

It's a Police station, not a piece of art, nor is it a tourist attraction. (unless you want perps to think "wow such a nice building" as they're are being brought in)

The functionality of the building must be the primary concern. Currently members of the police force are working in closets as offices due to lack space, should we continue to impair them just so the station can look pretty.

Simply putting a pretty building in east Dundas isn't going to change the area, there larger concerns at play there

MapMaster said...

It might surprise you, Bonnie, that I have no substantial quibbles with your comment. "[R]ipple-effects, spillovers, synergies, and the like" from bad design do occur, as the Galleria will testify. It is my opinion, but only my opinion, that the suggested design is a damned sight better than anything else on the corner and that it will not be detrimental to overall improvement in the area, should that ever occur. (Not to mention that it's a police station ferchrissakes, hardly an incubator for commercial or residential development, no matter how good it looks.) But that's not really the concern here, because there is and can be no objective criteria for public projects — unlike private projects, where cost, marketing and public relations of the private firm are at least objective if inexactly predictable considerations. In the absence of objective criteria, sentiment takes over, and politics generally allows the most demonstrative sentiments to govern decisions, and the most demonstrative sentiments come from people who want something for themselves from the public project — people who don't want something for themselves out of it are, of course, less likely, almost by definition, to be demonstrative about it. Does that make the demonstrative sentiments the correct ones for decision-making? There's no way to tell, of course, but I'm properly suspicious of them simply on account of the fact that they want something for themselves that other people must provide. Why are aesthetics grounds for making the decision? Or, conversely, why not? It's all completely arbitrary, so let the vested interests win!

[I]f we can't at least make an effort to do good urban design on our public buildings, then what kind of example are we presenting for the design of private buildings?

That was good… I had no idea that was what public buildings were for, especially since for the past century or so it's been private buildings that have been setting an example for the public ones.

I didn't comment on the overall cost of the project because I'm not qualified to evaluate architectural, engineering and construction costs. But, given that it is a public project, I'd guess that it's overpriced.

bonnie abzug said...

I'm not surprised, Mapmaster, that you are motivated at some level by questions around livability, (at least adequate) urban design, sustainability and the form of the built environment. I suspect you have little interest in living in a real jungle.

Deep Trout said...

Vested interests are the most demonstrative?

Are taxpayers "vested interests"? Absolutely.

Are Londoners "vested interests"? Absolutely.

There are plenty of people in London who seek to improve London without financial gain for themselves, but seek improvements that benefit everyone in the city.

Centennial Hall is an interesting example. If more Londoners had of railed against that building prior to it being built in 1966, would all Londoners have benefitted?


It's a true cynic who thinks all people act on their own narrow self-interest when advocating how public dollars are spent.

gm said...

Are tax spenders "vested interests"? Absolutely.

Are London politicians "vested interests"? Absolutely.

There are plenty of people in London who seek to improve London with financial gain for themselves, and seek improvements that benefit everyone in the city.

It's a truly naive person who thinks most people act in an altruistic fashion when advocating public dollars be spent in this way.

MapMaster said...

I should have been more specific. By "vested interests," I meant those interests that have something to gain at the expense of the interests of most other people. People who demand are generally more vocal than people who do not, i.e., "taxpayers" and "Londoners." Examples like Centennial Hall rather prove the point, as you mention.