During the Robert Moses symposium last weekend, New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger's evenhanded assessment of the Moses rehabilitation was cited:
And Robert Moses got things done. In the age of citizen participation, this has become harder and harder. For more than five years, we have been fighting over what to do at Ground Zero, and the future of much of the sixteen-acre site is still unresolved. The idea of Moynihan Station—a conversion of the classical Farley Post Office, on Eighth Avenue, into an improved Penn Station—was first proposed a decade ago, and it still hasn’t happened. By contrast, Moses’s plan to cover miles of train tracks on the Upper West Side with an extension of Riverside Park took under three years from design to completion.
In an era when almost any project can be held up for years by public hearings and reviews by community boards, community groups, civic groups, and planning commissions, not to mention the courts, it is hard not to feel a certain nostalgic tug for Moses’s method of building by decree. It may not have been democratic, or even right. Still, somebody has to look at the big picture and make decisions for the greater good. Moses’s problem was that he couldn’t take his eye off the big picture. He was so in tune with New York’s vastness that he had no patience for anything small within it. Caro brilliantly immortalized Moses’s indifference to neighborhoods and people at a time when the city was weak, when the wounds from his high-handed approach were raw, and when Jane Jacobs’s focus on the fine grain of neighborhoods held fresh promise. But there is a price to pay for thinking small, just as there is for thinking big. Thirty years later, we are still trying to find the balance.
The balance and AY
Indeed. Is Atlantic Yards an example of shortsighted citizens unwilling to look at the big picture, thinking too small? Is it an example of political leaders willing to cut corners, thinking too big?
Both premises can be debated. What might be less debatable, however, is that "activist planning"--what one participant at the symposium called a prerequisite for such projects--has been absent.
Indeed, City Council President Christine Quinn last week told the Brooklyn Heights Association, according to the Courier-Life chain, that the city failed:
Asked about the massive Atlantic Yards project, Quinn said it should have gone through a thorough review. “The city abdicated its role,” she said.
Demolition prep work on the $4 billion project, which includes a new arena for the Nets, has already started.
“I don’t know what options are left now,” she said. “I’m not sure anything is left to be done.”
Note that, while Atlantic Yards is a state project, the city has, in other projects involving partly city land, requested that the city's land use review procedure be included. In this case, don't Quinn and fellow City Council members have any say in the $205 million--up from the $100 million promised in a 2005 Memorandum of Understanding--that Mayor Bloomberg wants to commit to the project?
As for Goldberger, recall his assessment last October of Atlantic Yards:
Although the site cries out for development, neither Ratner nor Gehry has a convincing idea of how this should be done. Ratner seems to have been less interested in using Gehry’s architectural talent to best advantage than in trying to leverage his celebrity to make an unpopular development more palatable.