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Acela: The Journey Begins

12/23/11 10:50am  Location: Passing Edgewood, MD

With nothing better to do, I arrive at Washington’s Union Station at 9am, an hour before my train is to depart. The station is setup much like an airport or bus station with gate numbers and such. As I sit at Gate F: Acela Express 2160, the gate next to me is boarding on the Northeast Regional. The regional train follows much the same route as the Acela but makes more stops (especially in the tri-state area) and has a conventional train set.

Acela Route Map

As the time to board draws closer, I make idle small talk with people around me and notice that people have started lining up at the gate. I have never really understood this behavior. Why are these people so eager to be first? It’s only 9:30, they don’t start boarding until 10 minutes before departure, and they act like it’s a race. Let’s suppose that instead of a train to Boston, it was a bus to Nebraska. Would these people be as equally eager to board then? In any event, I remain calmly seated until our boarding is announced.

Walking through the gate door, I am brought onto the platform where our train is waiting. What a beautiful, sleek machine. These trains go 150 mph, though not on all parts of the route. One of the nice things about the Acela is that the whole train is Business Class. I walk down the platform and enter the second car from the front. The interior is well lit and leather seats line both sides of the aisle, with some in a 2×2 conference table configuration. I select one of the many empty seats and settle in.

The train departs promptly at 10am. I notice that there’s no jerking acceleration, only a smooth woosh as the train pulls out. 15 minutes later, we make a brief stop at Baltimore Washington International Airport for some more people to get on, no more than a minute. 10 minutes after that, we stop in Baltimore itself. This time for less than 30 seconds. They’ve got this thing running like a Swiss watch!

I pull out my laptop because Acela trains are equipped with free wi-fi. When I open my browser, I’m brought to Amtrak’s home page with a map of the Acela route so I can track my journey. I log into my blog with no trouble at all. Now this is the way to travel!


On Architecture

Kogod Courtyard

Today, I sat and drank coffee in 2 of my favorite spaces in DC: the Great Hall at the National Building Museum and the Kogod Courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery. The architecture at each location is stunning and makes me wish that I had studied architecture at Syracuse instead of public policy. In any case, I recently found a book called “101 Things I Learned In Architecture School” that is full of little tidbits that I would have picked up along the way. While full of abstract theories regarding the built environment, it also has some great practical tips. My favorite tip involves accounting for people’s clothing when designing doorways and corridors: ‘”Summer people are 22 inches wide. Winter people are 24 inches wide.”

Syracuse Revisited

Back in October, I went back to Syracuse for Homecoming. This was the first time I had returned since moving away in July. During my short absence, rapid progress was made on projects I had worked on in the Near Westside.

I emailed my old supervisor at Home HeadQuarters to reconnect and ask about the developments. She confirmed that the FTGU homes received LEED certification. Both the Live Work home and TED House got LEED Platinum and the R-House got LEED Gold. The Gold rating surprised me because the R-House is by far the most insulated and air-tight. Even so, I am tremendously relieved that those projects finally got certified and all that hard work I did paid off. I am even more relieved that 601 Tully is up and running. It looks like they’ve got a bunch of community activities going on in there and Cafe Kubal is in full swing.

621 Marcellus, a project that was almost nixed because of funding delays, has also received a new facade. This project involves the renovation of a commercial structure into a studio for a local recording artist. He’s set to close on the property in February and is thrilled that his dream of having his own space is finally becoming reality!

SYR3: The Station

Over the weekend, I participated in the SYR3 design charrette organized by UPSTATE. When I tried to explain to my friends what I was doing, I found that that many of them had no idea what the word “charrette” meant. A charrette is simply a period of intense design activity. Based on the French word for “cart” or “chariot”, the term is thought to have originated at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Student architects there often worked furiously until the last minute, changing the design of their models even as they were pushing them across campus on carts (“charrettes”) to submit them to their professors.

At the start of the charrette, we were split into 3 teams, each focusing on one of the 3 design sites. Each group had 2 architecture students, a landscape architecture student and a business student. I chose to focus on the Station site in Armory Square because I used to park my car at the site everyday when Home HeadQuarters’ offices were still located downtown.

The Station site is situated at the corner of Armory Square where the downtown neighborhood begins to intersect the Near Westside neighborhood. Our team decided that it would be great to capitalize on the site’s proximity to the Museum of Science and Technology, Armory Square Restaurants and the new water reclamation facility. In addition to facilitating the creation of a bike and pedestrian corridor between the 3 sites, we proposed creating a literal “beer garden” and food lab where hops and food can be grown to create beer and food for the community. The existing train station could be reclad in glass and serve as a greenhouse/cafe.

I came away from the whole experience with an appreciation of approaching problems from a interdisciplinary perspective. For instance, while the architects in my group worked on the design, I used my background in public policy to create a map of the political landscape surrounding the site and worked on a strategy to build community support for the project. I also came away with cuts on my hands and a shredded pair of jeans from scaling the fences surrounding our site to take pictures. Accessibility will certainly need to be addressed if our design is eventually implemented!

A Guy’s Guide to Being a Guy

As much as I hate to admit it, sometimes the finer points of being a man don’t come as instinctively to me as my love for beer and riding lawn mowers. Though there are many men’s interest magazines out there, they all seem to feature guys with arms the size of the USS Enterprise (Flex Magazine), hipster pretty boys of ambiguous sexual orientation who are either trying to sell me underwear or ask me out to dinner (GQ), or celebrities with classic good looks and $650 to spend on a pair of “lightly distressed” Peruvian-knit argyle socks (Esquire). Where then can a guy like me, stuck in the limbo between graduating college and starting a professional career, find simple advice on how to update my wardrobe on the cheap, make a marinade out of the 3 condiments I have in my fridge, and otherwise be manly?

In the past, I have relied on AskMen for various pointers on how to be the ideal man. However, I have found that their reviews of $3,500 watches and 10 Tips on How to Deal with a Mid-Life Crisis are not particularly relevant to someone like me whose most valuable possession is his PlayStation and the only life crisis he’s dealing with is deciding which career path to take. Given this, I was very happy to come across Primer Magazine today while I was browsing the web. What makes Primer so perfect is that it’s masthead spells out in plain English “A Guy’s Post-College Guide to Growing Up.” It’s filled with tons of advice on affordable style and how-to’s for the everyday 20-something guy. If you’re as in need of some guidance as I am, definitely check it out.

Syracuse Rail Line Studio

Last week, I was invited to participate in SYR3, a 3-day design charrette focused on creating a comprehensive plan to revive the now defunct OnTrack rail corridor in Syracuse. The charrette is being led by Trevor Lee, an UPSTATE Design Fellow, and Lena Vassilev, a professor at the Syracuse University School of Architecture. Several students from the Syracuse University School of Architecture, the College of Visual and Performing Arts and the School of Management will work together in teams to reintegrate the railroad into the civic fabric of the city. We are encouraged to examine precedents like New York City’s High Line and to think about the railroad as a community space first and a transportation network second.

The Knuckle

We have separated the rail line into 3 distinct nodes:  the Station (Armory Square), the Slope (South Side) and the Knuckle (Syracuse University). Each node has a unique geography and offers a different opportunity for development. For instance, I think the Station’s  existing infrastructure and proximity to Armory Square make it ideally suited for the development of commerce, like boutiques and cafés.

Over the weekend, I broke a few rules and hopped the fence that surrounds the rail line. Starting at the Knuckle, I walked along the tracks into downtown Syracuse until I reached the Station, a distance of just over 1 mile. As I walked, I examined the surroundings and studied the existing use of the space. As a recreational trail, the rail line would certainly allow people to see Syracuse from a different perspective. From the bridges that span roads in the South Side, the entire neighborhood becomes visible. As you approach downtown, the majestic Hotel Syracuse stands out among the familiar AXA Towers. Sadly, I also noticed that some areas along the tracks are used as living spaces by the city’s homeless.

The charrette begins this Friday night so I’ll have a chance to study the many possibilities for this great asset in depth.

Getting Laid Off the Right Way

I, like many Americans, have recently fallen victim to the tepid economy and am being laid off from my job as a construction manager at Home HeadQuarters in Syracuse, NY. We rely heavily on government funding and recent cuts in government programs have hit us especially hard.  I have seen the writing on the wall for several months and downsizing did not come as a surprise to me. Luckily, my status as an Engagement Fellow has given me the leverage to continue working until the end of the semester rather than being released immediately like the other affected employees. If you find yourself in a similar situation and would like to make a graceful exit, I suggest you follow these 3 steps:

1. Put your situation in perspective

Being laid off is not as terminal as some believe it to be. It is not a period at the end of the sentence that is your life. Rather, it is an ellipsis to something better. I suspect that the job you had was not the one you dreamed of when you were 12-years-old. No 12-year-old dreams of pushing paper in accounts receivable. You ended up there not because you like it, but because it was the most convenient path to take. Now that you have been given a second chance to follow your dreams, dig deep and focus on doing just that.

2. Plan for the future of your company

Do not sell yourself short and think that you will fade into the past once you have left. Instead, aim to build a legacy within your company that will continue to grow long after you have gone. Recognize the future value of your work relationships and double your efforts to ensure that they remain strong and favorable. Doing otherwise could create trouble for you down the road. For instance, I had a run-in with an employee in the parking lot the day layoffs were taking place and she said some highly inappropriate and unprofessional things to me. As my father likes to say; “Words are like toothpaste. Once they’re out, you can’t put them back in.” My respect for her has been irreparably damaged and I will certainly not go out of my way to help her in the future.

As for actually executing the transition, you should have a solid exit strategy. Planning ahead will not only help you tie up loose ends, it will help your coworkers pick up where you left off as well. It will also help you feel constructive during a time when you may not feel motivated to do much of anything. When I first took my position, I had the misfortune of taking on several projects from an outgoing employee who had not planned for his transition. When he left, all the know-how needed to move the projects forward left with him. I spent months doing redundant work just to get the projects back to where they were before he left. This was an incredibly frustrating and demoralizing experience that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. It could have easily been averted with a well thought out transition plan.

After you are notified of a layoff, sit down and create a transition timeline that outlines each step of the process. Your timeline might look something like this:

Notified of layoffs

  • Create a timeline outlining each phase of the transition

Outline responsibilities

  • Prepare overviews for each of your projects that include the following:
  • Overview of the project history
  • Project Management Plan, including goals, deliverables, expectations and requirements
  • Project Schedule, including project timeline
  • Project Budget, including cost estimates
  • Communications Plan, including contact info for key players and stakeholders
  • Risk Management Plan, including summary of possible problems and solutions
  • Asset Directory, including location of all documents (contracts, service agreements, drawings, surveys,   etc.) and physical assets (tools, materials, etc.) needed for project completion

Create a plan

  • Combine all project overviews into a single transition plan. Include a complete listing of your business contacts in an appendix.
  • Assign each project to a new project manager
  • Create confirmation document for new project managers to sign upon review and understanding of transition plan.

Update the plan

  • Update transition plan with recent project progress. Finalize document.

Share the plan

  • Inform coworkers of date of departure
  • Schedule meetings with new project managers to review the transition plan.
  • At the conclusion of each meeting, have the new project manager sign the confirmation document acknowledging understanding of transition plan.

Phase-out week

  • Transfer responsibility for projects to new project managers. Support them through this transition.
  • Send email to stakeholders in each project explaining the transition and providing contact info for the new project manager.
  • Create transition report summarizing the outcome of the transition process. Include the signed confirmation documents from all new project managers.
  • Migrate data from computer drive to shared network drive
  • Forward important emails to appropriate parties
  • Submit transition report to senior management

Last day

  • Destroy all confidential material not needed for the transition
  • Clean office area (recycle unwanted paper) and gather personal belongings. Remember to leave all company property (office supplies, books, tools, etc.) at desk or with the appropriate party.
  • Turn in all keys, keycards, badges and parking passes before leaving the building

3. Plan for your own future

While there are many books out there that try to help you “find your passion,” I have found that the best ones simply help you ask the right questions. Tim Ferriss’ acclaimed book “The 4-Hour Workweek” is certainly a step in the right direction. It challenged some of my basic assumptions about what a career is supposed to be. On a similar note, Jonathan Mead’s “Illuminated Mind” series advocates breaking from the traditional “drudgery for dollars” career model in favor of one more in tune with your personal passions. To help find your passion, he poses a series of self-reflection questions. Some of my favorites are:

  • What do you often find yourself searching for on Google and researching for hours?
  • When you enter a bookstore, which section do you naturally gravitate toward?
  • When is a time in your life that I have felt the most creative?

Following these 3 steps should help you come to terms with your situation, make a graceful exit, and land softly on the other side.