Sunday, July 02, 2006

Critic Goldberger calls AY a corruption of Jacobsian "mixed-use"

New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger hasn't yet weighed in on the Atlantic Yards project and, since he writes fairly infrequently, maybe he won't do so soon. But he offers some skeptical words about the project within a column in the July issue of Metropolis headlined Jane-washing, with the subtitle "The danger of Jacobs’s legacy lies with developers who co-opt her ideas to justify their megaprojects."

Goldberger acknowledges a small backlash:
After all, Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote in the New York Times, Jane Jacobs had little understanding of Los Angeles, few ideas about how to control suburban sprawl, and not much sympathy for urban forms that did not grow out of a dense, squat nineteenth-century model.
True enough. But looking at Jacobs’s legacy, I am less concerned with the things she missed or failed to understand than about the things she saw and the way the ideas she cared passionately about seem to have been misunderstood or deliberately misused for purposes that would have appalled her.


The culprits: pseudo-villages in shopping malls and the West Side Stadium. Goldberger scoffs:
And so you put together a gargantuan mixed-use complex that does all the right things, sort of, so long as one ignores a couple of Jacobs’s guiding notions: her belief in small-scale and pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods, and her commitment to the diversity conferred upon a neighborhood by the presence of small businesses and multiple landlords. Today economic forces seem to push us relentlessly toward larger and larger buildings and more and more corporate development, away from the modest scale and diverse ownerships that Jacobs believed were critical for human interaction in a neighborhood.

Third culprit: Atlantic Yards

Goldberger continues:
In downtown Brooklyn a single developer is now proposing an enormous complex of multiple towers, shops, and public space around the centerpiece of a sports arena, and he is trying to present it—like so many megaprojects today—as not just an effort at economic development but an enabler of a fine-grained urban life.

Indeed, had Goldberger calculated that the amount of open space created would be far too little for the number of new residents, he might have been more dismayed.

Jane not gospel

Goldberger allows that Jacobs could be wrong, "engaging in what I have often called the fallacy of physical determinism, suggesting that the physical form of a neighborhood determines everything about how it will function." He suggests that towers in a park, while "usually not right," work well in Stuyvesant Town. (The Municipal Art Society doesn't quite agree, suggesting that the open space "feels private." See p. 25 of the slide presentation produced for the June 15 session on Atlantic Yards design principles.)

Goldberger contends that, for much of Manhattan, including Jacobs's beloved Greenwich Village, New York has outgrown (and outgentrified) Jacobsian evolution. His closing:
The real limitation of Jacobs’s thinking is in her belief that since a relatively natural process gave us the city we love—the old neighborhood-rich, pedestrian-oriented, exquisitely balanced New York—then planning would not be of much use in the future...The natural process of growth now gives us sprawl, gigantism, economic segregation, and homogeneous, dreary design. In Jacobs’s day the intervention into organic urban growth was symbolized by Robert Moses. Today the forces trying to intervene are those set in motion by Jacobs.

Let's acknowledge that Atlantic Yards is seen by ACORN and others as fighting economic segregation, since, unlike several other developments in Brooklyn, it includes a provision for a significant slice of affordable housing. (I call it a privately negotiated affordable housing bonus, because the provision of affordable housing is used as a justification for building at extreme density and thus gigantism.) However, the project also raises concerns about economic displacement and segregation as spillover effects in the nearby neighborhood.

What would planners do?

Goldberger's column provokes questions about the role of planning. Jacobs wasn't a fan of planning, and planners do have their blind spots. Then again, for the Atlantic Yards project, the planning "is all backwards," according to urban planning professor Tom Angotti, so it's worth wondering what a more rational and democratic planning process might have produced.

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