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Unrealized City Plans: 9 What-Ifs That Would Have Changed U.S. Cities

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Counterfactual city planning, missed opportunities, and a floating stadium

The history of any city, a conglomeration of decades of developments and design trends, contains numerous false starts. Buildings that weren’t finished, plans that never materialized, neighborhood shifts that never came to be: possibilities are apparent on every city block and every downtown. Even the most well-planned cities grow through complex, organic, and unpredictable evolution, shifting with the booms and busts of the economy, meaning the well-meaning proposals of planners and architects, can often get lost amid larger trends.

The unique, often frustrating, path of city development makes the counterfactuals of urban history so exciting. How would a single project, park, or city plan have altered the shape of your favorite city? Would monorails have changed Los Angeles, or could a mile-high skyscraper by Frank Lloyd Wright alter the Chicago skyline? Dozens upon dozens of examples exist; Curbed picked a few of the intriguing, infuriating, even entertaining what-ifs to profile below.

Olmstead-Bartholomew Park Plan for Los Angeles

From the famous streetcar conspiracies to abandoned mass transit plans, Los Angeles history is filled with lost opportunities that could have made this land of parking lots and car-focused development a more walkable metropolis. One of the most interesting of the lot is a huge park proposal from 1930, a joint development by the sons of the country’s most well-known landscape architect and a St. Louis planning firm, Harland Bartholomew & Associates. Their vision, released in a report title "Parks, Playgrounds and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region," would have gone big on greenspace, adding 71,000 acres of parkland, a440 miles of connecting parks and parkways, and large, protected public spaces on the riverfront and Pacific Coast. When the plan was shelved by the same LA Chamber of Commerce that commissioned it, the region lost a chance to become a much greener metropolis, especially poorer sections of the city that are now notoriously park poor.

Mangin’s Layout for Lower Manhattan

Manhattan’s southern section offers a set of roads and intersections that often ensnarls traffic. But early in the city’s post-Colonial life, a French engineer and surveyor proposed a more orderly grid that would have turned those warrens of streets into a walkable, Parisian layout of promenades, roundabouts, and irregular grids. Joseph Francois Mangin’s 1803 plan would have instilled a walkable, European style of urbanity on the city that would have made New York a more pedestrian-friendly, easily navigable city. Political rivalries and jealousies led city officials to dismiss Mangin’s idea, and soon, the city was laid out in with rectangles and grids in mind, a decision that contributes to today’s congested streets.

Big Cypress Jetport in Southern Florida

Had it gotten off the ground, this elaborate jetway would have revolutionized both transportation and the economic future of Florida. In the mid-’60s, state officials began toying with the idea of creating a jetway, a new transport center that could handle futuristic planes, such as the proposed Boeing 2707, capable of transporting hundreds of passengers simultaneously while achieving supersonic speeds. One of the many drawbacks to this fanciful idea was the incredible noise that would been produced by the takeoff and landing of these high-tech planes. The solution was to simply build in the swamps. In 1968, the Dade County Port Authority picked up 39 acres of land just north of the Everglades National Park, planning to construct a futuristic airport five times larger than JFK with with six supersized runways. The facility would be connected to the Miami area as well as the Gulf Coast via a 1,000-foot-wide corridor running across the state, complete with a monorail system. The ambitious plan was defeated after a ecological impact report found that construction of the proposed jetport would have destroyed the Everglades Park. The partially built facility, including a single 10,500 foot runway, lives on as the Dade-Collier Training and Transition Airport, mostly used for pilot training.

Seattle’s Floating Sports Stadium

In the early ‘60s, architects and engineers hatched up a scheme to give Seattle, a city that was then without a major sports franchise, a architectural sequel to the Space Needle. The proposal for a floating, domed stadium, advanced by builder Howard S. Wright Jr., the man responsible for a bulk of space-age Seattle in the ‘60s, would have added a major arena complex to Elliot Bay, a home for up to 70,000 football fans that would float thanks to concrete pontoons. A bond issue to finance the stadium was rejected by voters soon after it was proposed in 1963, and the stadium was never to be. While major league sports came to Seattle by the end of the decade, the stadium, which would have also brought an extension of the city’s monorail system, would have reshaped a section of downtown, perhaps making the city even more a magnet for futuristic architecture.

Soul City in Warren County, North Carolina

Founded by key civil rights leader Floyd McKissick, this utopian urban vision for North Carolina (recently profiled by 99 Percent Invisible) was meant to be a black-owned community and machine for empowerment. Funded by seed money from the federal government during the urban crisis era of the late ‘60s, the community was meant to be a self-sustaining, progressive town with a population that would reach 44,000, and even boasted a tech incubator called Soul Tech One. Sadly, McKissick’s dream fell apart, however, as the development struggled to gain momentum, lacked much needed investment, and faced hostility from press and local government officials. While it’s far from a major metro area, this experiment in urban planning could have provided an intriguing blueprint for planners across the country had they figured out a formula for success.

Proposed United Nations Headquarters in San Francisco

Technology has made San Francisco and the Bay Area an international economic powerhouse, but during a brief period after WWII, the city was poised to become a world capital. In late 1945, the then-fledgling United Nations was debating where to locate its headquarters, and after the organization signed its original charter in San Francisco in October of that year, the city was certainly in the running. More than 200 cities in the United States competed for the honor of being "capital of the world," submitting elaborate proposals. Vincent Raney, an architect known for his "Flying A" service stations and domed movie theaters, created an elaborate plan for San Francisco’s UN HQ bid, placing the international organization amid the city’s Twin Peaks neighborhood. New York City would eventually win the honor, but it’s interesting to consider how relocating the organization to the west coast may have affected international relations, as well as the city’s international stature.

Platform City Plan for Houston

A never-realized vision that would have provided ample evidence that "everything is bigger in Texas," this proposed 74-acre enclosed city-within-a-city was, according to author Steven Strom, a symbol of the decline of the can-do optimism of that era of American society. The Texas Eastern Transmission Corporation, flush with oil profits, proposed the concept in 1970, dubbed an "Acropolis" for Texas that would contain a mechanical transport system and a raised, pedestrian-oriented city floating above the existing business district. While the idea was discussed for years, its size and cost made it unfeasible. For a city that takes pride in its lack of city planning, this radical proposal would have offered an intriguing experiment in community-building and dense urban design.

Unbuilt Skyscrapers and Civic Center in Downtown Detroit

Every big city in the United States can point to proposed skyscrapers and civic designs that, had they been realized, would have transformed the skyline and beautified the downtown. Pre-Depression Detroit may have some of the greatest examples of lost towers, especially since one partially finished project hints at what could have been. Had the nationwide economic slowdown not hit Motown in the ‘30s, the city may have been able to lay claim to a series of stunning buildings, including an 81-story Book Tower designed by Louis Kamper (not to be confused with the current, shorter Book Building in Detroit) and an expanded Fisher Building (the Art Deco beauty currently standing represents only a third of architect Albert Kahn’s vision), as well as a downtown civic center plan devised by master architect Eliel Saarinen. Shelved due to budget limitations, these concepts could have transformed downtown Detroit.

Hank Williams Village in Chicago's Uptown Neighborhood

A city that has struggled under a legacy of segregation, Chicago has no shortage of neighborhoods that would have benefitted greatly from concentrated, thoughtful urban development. In the late ‘60s, the northside Uptown neighborhood was due to get a new college, Truman, as part of an urban development scheme the would raze and replace blocks of housing and taverns frequented by a core of mostly poor, rural Southern whites who settled in that part of the city. Two other high education urban renewal projects in post-war Chicago had mixed results, so the residents of Uptown advanced a counterproposal: Hank William Village, a mixed-use, community focused development with pedestrian streets and community centers, modeled after a small, close-knit Southern town. The plan even received community funding from the Ford Foundation before proponents were outmaneuvered by landowners, who ended up selling to the college.

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