Foes of big buildings get help from King Kong technology

Down in the basement of the architecture school at the University of California, Berkeley, Peter Bosselmann displays the urban planner's equivalent of a time machine. It's not glitzy or expensive. It's not even state-of-the-art technology. But it allows Dr. Bosselmann, the director of Berkeley's Environmental Simulation Laboratory, to create on film exactly what a city will look and feel like in the future. And that is putting him in the center of what is probably the nation's biggest urban tussle.

Before us lies a 17-by-24-foot model of San Francisco. The tiny buildings look as they do in real life, with the exception of a few tan, unpainted buildings: projects that are proposed but haven't been built yet.

To feel what it would be like if those buildings were erected, Bosselmann lowers a crane with an ``optical probe'' - a skinny periscope with a camera at the end - into the model. As the camera moves down the tiny model street, it projects a picture onto a screen.

To the viewer, it feels as if one is walking or driving down the street. In a Bosselmann film - he has made two for New York City civic groups, as well as for San Francisco and a few other cities - a proposed project goes from the abstract to the concrete.

You see how much shadow is created, and how much (or little) sky is still visible; what the area looks like at night; whether you can orient yourself, by seeing other buildings or landmarks, for example. You can also experience how much wind the new buildings would create. (Wind simulation is done by another department at Berkeley, and Bosselmann has on occasion incorporated that into his presentations.)

The technology is close to 40 years old. It was developed in Hollywood to create special effects: King Kong scaling a skyscraper, for example. But until recently, it has been largely ignored by city planners to predict how development will affect an area. Now, civic groups are beginning to see the technology as a tool to battle development.

In previous attempts to curb development in New York City, ``we didn't have the technical data to back up our statements,'' says Gail McEachern, program director at the New York Parks Council. The Berkeley technology, she says, gives them the data and adds force to their arguments.

The ``Sim Lab'' technology puts Peter Bosselmann in the midst of a multibillion-dollar controversy. Donald Trump, developer of Trump Towers, among other things, wants to build the world's tallest building on the banks of the Hudson River in New York. The Parks Council, concerned that projects by Mr. Trump and others will create shadows, wind tunnels, and traffic on New York's Upper West Side, wants to scale them back.

On Dec. 1, the Parks Council will open a two-week display of Bosselmann's projections at the Urban Center. Viewers will be able to take an ``imaginary walk'' through 10 public spaces - Central Park, Riverside Park, schoolyards, and plazas - to see how these places would be changed by Trump's Television City and 47 other development projects proposed or in the works.

Bosselmann declines to give details about how the 150-story building and the 21 other towers in Television City will affect someone walking down the street or trying to read a newspaper on a park bench. But, he says, the complex ``will cast very long shadows, and it will be quite windy there.''

Bosselmann is not new to New York City battles. Several years ago, in an effort to clean up Times Square, city planners decided to let developers put up high-rise buildings in the square.

Bosslemann made a film showing how the new projects would reshape Times Square.

``It was quite a shocking view,'' he says. Even in his conservative scenario, simulating only half of the possible changes, the area looked like ``an office district,'' he says. ``It was no longer Times Square.''

Even so, the city's Planning Commission has not made any decisions on stopping the proposed projects, which could start construction this year.

Sim Lab's technology is not reserved for big-league decisions like those in New York. Recently the people in Shreveport, La., used a Sim Lab film to decide whether a highway should go around or over a lake.

``Probably every city has a part of town [that] is vulnerable to change, and the change that is proposed might not be an improvement,'' Bosselmann says. ``There's just no way of telling until it's done, and then it may be too late.''

Meanwhile, Sim Lab is finding new types of requests. As American agriculture continues its roller coaster, for example, the government has asked for an analysis of how best to redesign the countryside in the state of Washington. With dairy farmers going out of business, light industry and residential developments are likely to crop up, and the state wants to figure out the best - least jarring - way to space them out.

Eventually, people won't need scale models like Berkeley's to make their simulations, says Joseph Ferreira Jr. at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's School of Architecture and Planning. It will all be done on computer, using computer-aided design. While much of that technology is available now, it's expensive, out of the reach of civic groups wanting to keep an eye on developers.

When the price comes down, he says, the development process will become far more ``egalitarian'' - and heated. ``At that point, citizens will be armed to debate any change,'' he says.

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