True Green Cities / Celebrating Three Years – What Does It Take To Make a Neighborhood?

The 600 Block of Main Street which includes the historic Market Arcade (with the arched entry in the center) and the Market Arcade Cinemas, a block from my loft.

The 600 Block of Main Street which includes the historic Market Arcade (with the arched entry in the center) and the Market Arcade Cinemas, a block from my loft.

It’s been three years since I launched Barbara A. Campagna/Architecture + Planning, PLLC and while many things have changed, my goal to work on “greening what’s already here” continues to be met, often in places I never expected.  Many people are finding new ways to integrate historic preservation and green building practices, which makes my new venture a delightful and intellectually inspiring one. Given that I am currently living and working in the midst of a construction zone in downtown Buffalo, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to make a livable neighborhood. What do you need to be happy where you live? I know what I need and it may not be what the walkability wonks proclaim. Or is it? What I Need to be Happy
The Space Needle from my living room window in the Queen Anne High School Apartments. A more glorious view could not be imagined, even when it's foggy or cloudy!

The Space Needle from my living room window in the Queen Anne High School Apartments. A more glorious view could not be imagined, even when it's foggy or cloudy!

In thinking about the places I’ve lived in the past 20 years, I’ve developed my own list of what I need to make me happiest where I live.  The primary objective of all these needs is that they are within walking distance to my home or readily accessible to efficient rapid transit.  So here’s my list:  grocery store (one that I like!!), pharmacy, cafés, restaurant choices, dry cleaners, book store, gym, park and outdoors access.  And integrated within all of these community features is the fact that there are people out and about and using all of these places which need to be mostly open seven days a week.  And I need to have friends within walking distance too. Walkability Score
After living in a one bedroom apartment in Manhattan with no view, the move to an apartment in Seattle with views of mountains and iconic landmarks brought me great delight.

After living in a one bedroom apartment in Manhattan with no view, the move to an apartment in Seattle with views of mountains and iconic landmarks brought me great delight.

An organization called Walkable.com (which is primarily a real estate-based marketing company) will let you put in your address and then it will immediately spit out your “walkability score.”  I put in my recent addresses but when I started digging in deeper realized that it’s pretty hard to qualify the score from a blind website.  It might list “grocery stores” within walkable distance but it doesn’t qualify that these are awful convenience type-stores that I would never go in, let alone “grocery shop” in.  Or your neighborhood might have hills so they mark that down apparently for its “bikability” without acknowledging that in Seattle everyone rides bikes because of the hills and the great exercise it gives you! It also isn’t quick enough to acknowledge that in the urban and small business landscape, stores and restaurants close and open annually if not monthly.   So, in the five places I’ve lived in the past 20 years here is my ranked list and then we’ll compare them to the Walkability.com score:
  1. 523 East 78th Street, New York, NY  (1992-2003) TIED WITH
  2. 201 Galer Street, Seattle, WA (2003-2006)
  3. 4607 Connecticut Street NW, Washington, DC (2006-2013)
  4. 448 Factory Row, Winston-Salem, NC (2009-2013 part-time)
  5. 514 Main Street, Buffalo, NY (2013-present)
The view out my curtain wall windows from my Buffalo loft is always a surprise.

The view out my curtain wall windows from my Buffalo loft is always a surprise.

Another interesting thing to note is that the Walkable.com score does not evaluate the actual living place and my score above is rather ambivalent about this.  For example, my Buffalo loft is by far the most spectacular apartment I’ve had. My Seattle apartment was the most inspiring with a view of Mt. Rainier and the Space Needle, my DC apartment had the most glorious sun and a view of Rock Creek Park and our Old Salem house is a National Historic Landmark on an acre of land with a back porch, a “strollway” out front and the biggest magnolia tree I’ve ever seen.  My NYC apartment was also in a National Register and locally designated historic district, but it could fit in one of my Buffalo bathrooms! Apartments for the Working Class Poor
My apartment in City & Suburban Homes on the Upper East Side of Manhattan is the perfect location for the best in walkability.

My apartment in City & Suburban Homes on the Upper East Side of Manhattan is the perfect location for the best in walkability.

The Walkable.com score for my East 78th Street apartment is a round 100!  And I’d have to agree with that. It’s located within City & Suburban Homes, a complex built for the “working class poor” from 1906-1914.  It is also one of the most significant historic apartment designs, transforming NYC tenements into livable and socially fair places for all (individual plumbing and bathrooms, windows in every room and cross ventilation).  It is located on a full block between York Avenue and the East River, across the street from a city park and public pool, has a walkway across the FDR to provide access to the East River Esplanade so you can run the entire east side of Manhattan, is five blocks from Central Park, three blocks from the subway and 1 block from the cross-town bus. Being on the Upper East Side, every corner has shops, manicurists, wine shops, groceries, restaurants, cafes, pharmacies.  My favorite Italian market was one block away as were 3 gyms and multiple yoga studios.  It goes on and on. And the ten years I lived there my best friends lived three blocks away as well.
City & Suburban Homes, located on York Avenue between East 78th and East 79th Streets, tells a significant story about the transformation of apartment building design in New York City.

City & Suburban Homes, located on York Avenue between East 78th and East 79th Streets, tells a significant story about the transformation of apartment building design in New York City.

While my individual apartment was small and on the 4th floor of a walk-up, it was my own, it was rent controlled, it was a one bedroom and the minute I walked outside and saw my little park I was happy.  The Upper East Side was the perfect place for me to live – it was quiet and residential.   I had easy access to my two favorite museums (the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Natural History).  I preferred to go to yoga studios downtown and my favorite gym was cross-town on 83rd and Amsterdam, but it was all readily accessible without a car.  Those ten years were the most amazing urban experience and exactly what I wanted then.  And I don’t know that I’ve ever been happier.  A View from a High School
The view of downtown Seattle and the Space Needle from my neighborhood.

The view of downtown Seattle and the Space Needle from my neighborhood.

After living in NYC for 20 years, with no view from my apartment other than the light well “courtyards” and my neighbors’ living rooms, suddenly living on the top of the highest hill in Seattle, with curtain wall windows and a balcony and direct views of Mount Rainier, the Space Needle and the Seattle harbor, I truly thought I had entered paradise.  Every morning I would run to the window to see the mountains and the Space Needle.  Even if it was raining or foggy, the view of mountains or the Space Needle peering through the clouds was just as exciting.  Queen Anne is one of the most glorious neighborhoods anywhere and I lived in the old Queen Anne High School, which had been converted into apartments. Queen Anne was filled with Victorian, Queen Anne, Arts & Crafts and Modern houses all with amazing views wrapped around Queen Anne Avenue North which was lined with cafes, tea shop, restaurants, a gym, two yoga studios, pet shops, flower shops, a fantastic book shop, Trader Joe’s, Safeway and Metropolitan (a Whole Foods-like grocery shop no longer there).  My Saturdays in Queen Anne were perfect – I’d walk down the hill to yoga, then go across the street to the tea shop for tea with my girlfriends. Followed by a ramble back up Queen Anne Ave with stops at the flower shop, grocery, and bookstore.  I sure do miss my weekends in Seattle.
The Seattle Central LIbrary designed by Rem Koolhaas was only a 15 minute walk down Queen Anne Hill from my apartment.

The Seattle Central LIbrary designed by Rem Koolhaas was only a 15 minute walk down Queen Anne Hill from my apartment.

So I find it strange and amusing that the walkscore from my building, which was perched above our little “main street,” is only an 83.    For me, hardly any place could be better.  The major negative about my stint in Seattle was that my office was in the suburbs 30 miles south of Seattle. With no public transit there to speak of, I had to drive back and forth which was really torturous. I-5 is the major and only highway connecting all the communities in between the mountains and the water.  The traffic was awful, accidents all the time.  If my office had been downtown that would have been a much more civilized experience. The good thing was I had a schedule where I worked Mon-Thurs 10 hours so I could have Fridays off, which gave me more time to enjoy my neighborhood of choice. A Bookstore is the Center of the Neighborhood
The only Richard Neutra house in Washington, DC was just two blocks from my DC apartment on the edge of Rock Creek Park.

The only Richard Neutra house in Washington, DC was just two blocks from my DC apartment on the edge of Rock Creek Park.

My Washington, DC neighborhood of Forest Hills was a lush and fabulous place to live.  My building, a 1929 art deco 8-story apartment complex was just four blocks to the Metro with a great bus line that stopped in front of our building.  Connecticut Avenue was designed to have shopping center/main street strips at each neighborhood node. The heart of our neighborhood was Politics & Prose, one of the grandest bookstores anywhere in America.  In either direction we had pizza shops, restaurants, grocery stores, a famous car wash, a pet store, a frame store.  There are Trader Joes’ and Whole Foods in DC. and while not in my home neighborhood, they were within walking distance from my office in Dupont Circle so that worked well.  I had a gym in my building and my favorite yoga studio was several blocks from my office.  So the walkscore for DC at 75 befuddles me.  If any neighborhood defines “walkable” this is it. Living in a Historic Town
The Old Salem Strollway connects downtown Winston-Salem to the Salem Reservoir and runs in front of our house.

The Old Salem Strollway connects downtown Winston-Salem to the Salem Reservoir and runs in front of our house.

The most unusual residence among the five, where I live part-time, is in Old Salem, a historic living town, in Winston-Salem, NC.  My fella is the Vice-President of Restoration at Old Salem Museums & Gardens, and lives in an 1839 historic late Federal style house.  It is a joyful place with amazing sun and quiet on almost an acre of land.  It is the one single-family house I’ve lived in since moving out of my parents’ house in the suburbs.  Walkscore.com gives it a 72; I’d probably give it closer to a 90.  There is a strollway in front of the house that takes you downtown (a 10 minute walk) or to the bike path which heads out to Salem Lake (a park and reservoir) and the YWCA, which is a fantastic gym and fitness center, is along the strollway.   Old Salem has a variety of terrific little museum shops and the best farmers’ market that I have ever been to. While the farmers’ market is only open six months out of the year, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are only a 5-minute drive away and the ten-minute walk downtown leads you to Washington Perks, a specialty market.  Downtown also has one of the best small art and first-run movie houses in America, a/perture; a great variety of very good restaurants, a theatre, a convention center and a nice collection of small-scale skyscrapers.  All in all Winston-Salem, and Old Salem in particular, is a well-served small city. An Oasis in Main Street’s Desert
The current view out my front window in downtown Buffalo is not pleasant but potentially suggests progress.

The current view out my front window in downtown Buffalo is not pleasant but potentially suggests progress.

So it is with great curiosity, if not disdain, that I see that the walkable score for my loft on Main Street in Buffalo is a 97.   If you’ve read any of my blogs over the past year, you’ll know that I am quite torn over my Buffalo living.  I have a glorious 2-story live-work loft overlooking Main Street. With 10-foot ceilings and over 2000 square feet, I couldn’t imagine a more wonderful urban residence.  I get amazing light and I love every square foot of my place, as do my three cats.  But despite what the Walkable.com score suggests, the downtown community amenities are sorely lacking.  They say there are two “grocery stores” within walking distance without clarifying that they are barely convenience stores that I wouldn’t go in if my life depended on it (truly).  Downtown is seeing a lot of development – more restaurants, more living spaces, but I think I was probably five years too early here. The challenge will be to see if I can make it through the next year.  Most cafés and coffee shops close after 3 pm and are not open on weekends. There just isn’t yet the density or capacity to warrant keeping them open. And as a small business owner I understand how every hour you are open you need to pay staff and overhead costs.  And the Walkable.com score also doesn’t identify the fact that a Methadone clinic, parole office and Health & Human Services offices are all located on the same block I live in.  It’s a hard call.  I understand we need these services, it’s just really challenging to live so close to them and the unease factor it brings.
Perks

Perk's Cafe & Market directly across the street from my loft is like an oasis in the desert of Main Street even if I temporarily have to go around the construction fencing to access it.

There are some terrific amenities though that I can walk to – Shea’s Theatre for the once or twice a year I go to the theatre; Market Arcade Cinema (which sadly from a financial standpoint is always empty but from a patron standpoint is fantastic because you can go to opening night of “The Avengers” or “The Hobbit” and never have to worry about buying tickets ahead of time or getting sold out) which also sadly is up for sale; the Central Library and City Hall – both of which I visit regularly for work research; a handful of restaurants, and two pharmacies which are borderline acceptable.  A fantastic second-hand book shop is a few blocks from me and the one metro line is outside my door.   No dry cleaners (although our building has an agreement with a dry cleaner who picks up our clothes twice a week so I can’t really complain there!), no gym I find acceptable, and no grocery store.  There have been rumors that a two-story building across the street from me has been bought with the intention of turning it into a grocery store but the owner made his money from a Dollar Store dynasty so I’m not hopeful. The only thing I would hate more than Dollar Stores would be a two-story Dollar Store.
One of the joys of living in Old Salem is the gardens sprinkled throughout the historic district.  Green space is one of the major things missing in downtown Buffalo.

One of the joys of living in Old Salem is the gardens sprinkled throughout the historic district. Green space is one of the major things missing in downtown Buffalo.

The best thing to happen to my 500 Block of Main Street in the past six months has been the opening of Perk’s Café – a coffee and tea shop with breakfast pastries, soups, salads and sandwiches.  I cannot stress enough how much it has improved my life to be able to run across the street, chat with the staff, meet other neighbors and get a great reasonably-priced bowl of soup.  (Sadly the current construction fences mean I can’t just run across the street now but have to go down to the corner and back again – but this is temporary.) Where Would I Live?
Easy access to the National Mall and monuments like the Jefferson Memorial are one of the joys of Washington, DC-living.

Easy access to the National Mall and monuments like the Jefferson Memorial are one of the joys of Washington, DC-living.

So, I think the moral of my tale here is that no place is perfect.  I have loved every place I’ve lived for various reasons and they each have very-site specific pros and cons.  If you made me choose one place right now, it would be NYC.  NYC is really one of the great loves of my life.  Although, if I could move my sister and fella out of Buffalo and North Carolina respectively, I might just take them to Seattle.  The reality is I have been incredibly fortunate to live in each and every one of these glorious places.  If only we could be beamed places like I always expected we’d be able to when I was growing up watching Star Trek, then I wouldn’t have to choose just one at any given time! And if you’d like to “subscribe” or follow my blog, True Green Cities, please sign up through the “Subscribe” button at the bottom left of this page. You’ll receive a daily recap when new blogs are posted. Or Sign up for the Feed.
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