Thinking about “Innovation Square”

Is economic development an example of a more generative urbanism if compared to traditional, design project? Does it take a more projective position? It certainly seems more formulaic, calculated and free-market (biologically/virally?) oriented?  These are the sorts of thoughts that were circulating in my head after I attended the recent public unveiling or “show and tell” of the University of Florida’s planned Innovation Square project.

The event was covered in the local press by Nathan Crabbe (here), (here) and (here). An official press release can be found (here).  Overall the local reception has I think been positive if only because everyone wants to see Gainesville’s economic base diversify and grow and the “potential impact” of this project in the ongoing revitalization of eastern Gainesville could be huge. I took some notes at the event and have compiled them and additional thoughts about the redevelopment plans below.

Both the planner and University of Florida executive staff talked the talk. Meaning the event flyers and presentations were liberally sprinkled with words like livability, walkability, adaptability and sustainability. The goal is a “24/7 live/work/play urban research community” to attract the best and brightest researchers from around the world.

Lots of those kind of buzzwords. Reference was also made repeatedly to marketing and the need to brand the project. We were told that the process of growing the brand will be key to the success of the project and the already existing University of Florida and Gainesville brand will make it easier to create “a platform for global expansion and sustainable job growth“. Amenities like the adjacent historic district, downtown and university/health care campus’s will allow the district and Gainesville to compete, state-wide, nationally and even globally, drawing the best and brightest.

While not the ugliest thing going up in Gainesville right now this building still screams more suburban, corporate office park, than North Florida, Gainesville.  I certainly wouldn’t call the proposed building “stunning“. Adding a bricked panelized, facade as UF and Shands have been doing on so many of their projects lately isn’t what I am asking for either. As for it being (one of) the tallest buildings in Gainesville, I would take the Seagle Building over this any day. The proposal talks about “creating a place not space” but doesn’t that necessarily mean something contextual, reflexive and “authentic”.

That being said I did find some of what they were discussing quite interesting. Particularly, some of the language they used to describe their efforts at business “incubation“. Each building/lot is in their parlance an incubator, a self-contained development of sorts. These can be replicated as needed, based on economic factors. They talked a lot about the pre-programming: infrastructural upgrades, re-zoning, support structures and foundations. The University’s Economic Development Corporation (spinoff) owns and they (in collaboration with GRU (which wants new customers, energy hungry customers I suppose) will upgrade and then lease the site.

After defining a master-plan/site the individual “incubators” can be plugged in as other stakeholders (private real estate developers) come forward. They will offer Class A, fit-to-size, office space. The perfect, public/private partnership. It is also an explicitly generative and biological, urbanism. The terminology in the following quotes (from the project’s website) illustrate the point: (emphasis added)

With 45,000 square feet of incubator space encompassing laboratories, collaboration rooms and other support areas, this expansive downtown-to-university, multi-use complex is certain to serve as a breeding ground for breakthrough ideas and products for tech-based companies.

and

Innovation Square offers developers a rare opportunity to literally get in on the ground floor and grow along as a key component in a truly unique endeavor.

The plan also calls for: expanding streets to green-ways along a number of major corridors as well as a connection/expansion from the project site to the nearby Tumblin Creek Park. My concern with these parts of the plan, which I brought up during the Q+A session, is that if the project vision is on a 10-30 year span at what point in the phasing are those important public realms benefits implemented?

Will they be paid for as developers build the site out? I emphasized the need to phase those parts of the project earlier. Particularly, since now that Alachua General Hospital (the former site occupant) has been torn down, there is an approx. 30-40 acre hole in the urban fabric between the University and Downtown. One that the currently funded and almost completed first building will not fill. I urged them to at least get the construction fence down sooner than later. The answer was “as soon as the grass (which they have seeded for dust control) has “taken”.

Additionally, it is suggested that the project because of it’s location between campus and downtown could knit these two districts together, However, if these major corridor and green-way upgrades are not done upfront the whole argument falls apart. Without good connectivity even to surrounding neighborhoods the project risks becoming an all-inclusive, mixed use office park. Live, work and play, so that one never has to explore the city at large.

The Innovation Square project is really just part of a larger effort to build real momentum behind the theme of economic development in Gainesville as outlined by the Innovation Gainesville project. Innovation Gainesville is a united drive by various business, government and educational leaders to make sure Gainesville harnesses the force of the creative class as a tool of urban revitalization. Now as a alumni of the University of Florida and a longtime resident of the city I am glad to have a job and all the benefits of consumptive regeneration. However, I can’t help but be aware of the larger economic, social and political questions that such a direction engenders. I would always much rather see something like the Citizens Co-Op (and affiliated urban garden) or a bike trail than I would a Starbucks (Editor’s note: this is being written at a Starbucks) or another TIFed condo/student housing tower….

Regarding: gentrification, see my Pecha Kucha presentation from last year where I highlighted my more general concerns about this sort of creative class, securitized, cleaned up (of homeless and post-industrial/manufacturing) form of urban development.

Finally, as a coda of sorts any number of passages from a recent discussion on Archinect, “Gin Fizz Urbanism” may be instructive. Other applicable terms could include Alka-Seltzer Urbanism?, or concepts such as David Harvey’s The Right to the City.

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Midan Tahrir: The square, site of public, site of performance?

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So the events in Egypt have been inspiring. How could they not be. Moreover, I have read a few things within the last 48 hours or so, that have me thinking. Specifically, about 1) urban interventions 2) citizen as actors/designers 3) the politics of Public 4) and some things from my history graduate seminars regarding: politics as culture.

To begin check out these two images of Tahrir Square before and during the current political upheavals.

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Next one can read Fin-de-siècle Vienna: politics and culture, by Carl E. Schorske (which I read during an old history course on the Hapsburg Empire and Central European 19th Century Revolutions and still own), in which Carl draws on Camillo Sitte‘s view of the public square. In such a formulation a square can be the ideal performance site and representation of community. A “theater of common life“. The square and coffee-shop, newsprint and broadsheets, or the Ringstrasse and early urban Modernism of Otto Wagner, for Carl all were indicative of a new public, anti-monarchical, Liberalism. A new Public discourse.

So, there is that. Meaning, the idea of the square, urbanism, politics and civic ideals. The historical and moderns ways of viewing the square. From, Greece (agora) through Rome, then the Venetian piazza to Nazi Germany’s the Reichsparteitagsgelände, Red Communist’s Red Square or even Capitalist Times Square. The square as site of public spectacle or commons.

Along similar lines via Javier I came across this article in which Rob Wipond challenges the notion of “What is a sidewalk for?”. The tension is between simple traffic (read pedestrian) flow and the notion of public space for humanity. Civil engineering vs social engineering. With a similar insurgent spirit, Mimi Zieger announced an at least occasionally reoccurring series at Places journal, entitled The Interventionist’s Toolkit. With which she promises to focus on the sort of DIY, citizen/artist based hacking, cheap and performative, urban praxis which has, in light of the continuing recession, taking on an even bigger role within design circles. Whether, paper architecture, unsolicited architecture, Design Fiction, or jam-hack, for instance. At least in my own interest and reading.

Then, over at the UrbanSpaceInitiative they say about the public square; “The true value of an urban public square is that it is free from large obstructions. The square allows people to make use of its openness for a range of activities. This openness is a valuable asset within a wider urban environment that can often be crammed and cramped with traffic. William H. Whyte notes how a city can devour space unthinkingly and rapidly

Finally, back to the events in Egypt. The main site of events at least in Cairo has been Tahrir Square. The citizens have flowed there from all over the city. Some commentators have even noted the fact that rather than demonstrating in front of the palace of Hosni Mubarak, they have focused their energies in the square. This is partly due to the history of the site being tied to previous riots and revolts. A site of demonstration, ritualized political chanting and behavior. A revolution, the ultimate in public acts/displays of Liberalism. The power of people. A happening, liminal zone or apolitical place/space. I think it is instructive that in such a context a range of communal, public and urban interventions of a sort have been reported.

Tahrir Square has basically become occupied or domesticated. The citizens have grasped control from and extended (at least symbolically) their own control over the square. It has become a multi-day home for these volunteers. So, they are helping to clean up trash after recent protests. Hosing down the streets. Some are providing free medical service and food. They are even in some cases providing their own form of security for national institutions like the Alexandria library or Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. Protecting the patrimony and assuming the role of the state. Sleeping in groups, huddled around fires. As the protests move into their third week the protesters have even formed a tent city of sorts.

Or even this report of protesters building a trebuchet to use against security forces/thugs..

Some of these sound right out of the CCA catalog for the Actions: What You Can Do With the City exhibition, don’t they? Where does one draw the line between political act, human ingenuity or hyper-aware media ploy? Or perhaps a more medieval, tactical urbanism?

Are these sorts of acts an extension of the revolutionary events? A reflection of politics as representational culture? A way of emphasizing the protesters pro-Egyptian sensibilties? Are they discursive? What lessons can we learn about civic based urbanism? Is the answer a new regime? Pedagogical, economical or political. The need to create a public through the physical urban development of a public realm. Where do such thoughts tie in with concerns over the Right to the City?

The square was given its initial modern makeover in the 19th century. Commissioned as part of the new downtown district’s design by Khedive Ismail. How did those design decisions impact the current layout and usage of the park? Imagine if the square had been designed to accommodate only vehicular traffic or no vehicular traffic. How could recent events have been affected by the addition or removal of the adjoining public garden or the giant traffic circle?

More information on Cairo and Egyptian revolution (?) see this BIP by Orhan Ayyüce over at Archinect Or for more on history and urban development of Tahrir Square see this very informative post over at the blog Cairo: Multi-Schizophrenic. City