Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Robert Moses revisionism, Atlantic Yards "reconstruction," and the Times

Three upcoming exhibitions in New York herald a revisionist, more welcoming look at master builder Robert Moses, reports the New York Times in a Sunday article (Rehabilitating Robert Moses) just posted online.

Excluded from the main panel discussions--though later added as a solo speaker--is author Robert Caro, whose landmark critical biography, The Power Broker, is deemed by Columbia University's Hilary Ballon as placing too little emphasis on Moses's accomplishments. (The New York Observer has much more on the controversy.)

AY reconstruction?

Caro's biography is, in many ways, an indictment of a passive and cheerleading press, so perhaps it's fitting that this Times article makes two key mistakes regarding the Atlantic Yards project. First, a description:
With the city on the brink of a building boom unparalleled since Moses’ heyday — the reconstruction of Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, an overhaul of the Far West Side, sweeping redevelopment downtown — Ms. Ballon and other scholars argue that his legacy is more relevant than ever.


There's no such thing as "the reconstruction of Atlantic Yards." Atlantic Yards is a project, not a place, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's 8.5-acre Vanderbilt Yard would be a key component, but hardly a majority, of the AY project.

Planning for AY?

The Times article suggests that post-Moses projects must go through a gauntlet of approval, but somehow avoids mentioning the Empire State Development Corporation fast track process to which Mayor Mike Bloomberg agreed regarding Atlantic Yards:
THOUGH the city is building big again, the process by which it’s doing so is forever changed. Planners point out that whether a project is driven by the city, like the Javits Convention Center expansion; the state, which initially led efforts to redevelop the World Trade Center site; or a private developer, like the Related Companies’ Time Warner Center (or any number of architecturally ambitious condominium projects), checks and balances now guarantee that no one planner can wield the power of Moses.

With his multiple hats and broad authority as parks commissioner and Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority chairman, Moses managed to steamroll community opposition and ignore preservation concerns. Today the Landmarks and Preservation Commission, established in 1965, reviews projects like the proposed 30-story tower by Norman Foster in the Upper East Side Historic District, whose height the commission rejected this month. The Uniform Land Use Review Procedure [ULURP], adopted in 1975, ensures that a project undergoes a thorough public review process.

“Can there be another time when you can get big projects done all over the city?” Mr. Doctoroff said. “I think the answer is yes, and we’re in one now. Could you ever have one person who with imperiousness, with concentrated power, with lack of community input, could get things done? The answer is no.”


Regarding Atlantic Yards, the landmarks commission has had no role, and the state process bypasses ULURP. The project at Ground Zero went through far more hoops and public review than the AY plan.

City Planning?

The Tims article states:
And while Moses had no interest in aesthetics (which may be one reason he could move so quickly), the current city administration emphasizes design in its approval of projects, with standards imposed by officials like Amanda M. Burden, the city planning commissioner, and David Burney at the Department of Design and Construction.

As noted, Burden played no role in actually approving the project, but provided cover for a token cut.

Moses lives on, enabled by the press.

The RPA's criticism

To quote the Regional Plan Association's AY testimony:
Unfortunately, the public review process for the Atlantic Yards project is part of a pattern in which the State and the City enter into an agreement with a single developer prior to a full debate of alternatives. Ideally, this strategically vital piece of public real estate would have been the subject of a planning exercise… open bidding…. Instead, the state worked exclusively with Forest City Ratner while the MTA entered into a truncated bidding process only after a memorandum of understanding had been signed by FCRC, the state and the city. The details of the project were largely devised behind closed doors by the developer, and only minor modifications have been made in response to public criticisms. While the developer has held numerous public meetings and provided information to the community, most of the decisions regarding the site had already been made. As a result, the public has no way of knowing if this project is the best possible one for the site. It is greatly handicapped in assessing potential alternatives, and has less leverage for negotiating changes that would add to its community benefits.

Caro on the Times

From The Power Broker (p. 460):
Mrs. Sulzberger [wife of the publisher] believed that Moses came "close to our ideal of what a Park Commissioner should be"; the Times evidently believed so, too. Its reporters and editors may never have been directly ordered to give Moses special treatment but, during the Thirties as during the Twenties, they were not so insensitive as not to know what was expected of them. Moses' press releases were treated with respect, being given prominent treatment and often being printed in full. There was no investigating of the "facts" presented in those press releases, no attempt at detailed analysis of his theories of recreation and transportation, no probing of the assumptions on which the city was building and maintaining recreational facilities and roads. The Times ran more than one hundred editorials on Moses and his programs during the twelve-year La Guardia administration--overwhelmingly favorable editorials.

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