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Would Robert Moses hate Atlantic Yards? Yes, but... maybe not

Francis Morrone, an architectural historian and commentator for the New York Sun, has been thinking about the legacy of master builder/power broker Robert Moses, subject of the three exhibitions and book, and several of Morrone's columns.

And the immersion has led Morrone, who lives in Park Slope and is on the advisory board of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, to another conclusion: Moses would hate Atlantic Yards, even though it has been touted by Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff as kinder, gentler version a Moses-style megadevelopment. (Indeed, many fewer people and business would be displaced.)

Morrone told me he'd flesh out his thoughts further, but summarized what he thought would be Moses's objections:
--he disliked flashy architecture (and starchitect Frank Gehry's work embodies flash)
--he disavowed corporate branding (as with the Barclays Center)
--he avoided gaudy signage (as planned at the Urban Room and arena)
--he would've looked askance at small amount of open space (the ratio for the population would actually go down)
--he would've been appalled at the lack of coordinated traffic planning (and even project booster Marty Markowitz has come up short).

Morrone spoke Thursday night after a forum, titled "Where Goes the Neighborhood: The Past, Present, and Future of Park Slope," sponsored by the Park Slope Civic Council.

Product of his time

Some implicit endorsement of Morrone's views, but perhaps more implicit contradiction, was on evidence this weekend at a conference devoted to the legacy and reevaluation of Moses. Notably, participants observed that the city is more receptive in general to big projects.

We should remember, as those organizing the revisionist look stress, that Moses was a product of his times. Some of his projects were good architecture, and some were lousy, and that depended in part on the financing and the rules. He opposed subsidies for sports facilities, but so did everyone else.

Indeed, an analyst of Moses's rejection of subsidies for the Brooklyn Dodgers speculated that Moses might even support subsidies for projects today.

Moses, 2007?

Would he have come around to starchitecture? At the symposium Friday keyed to the new museum exhibitions, Robert Moses: New Perspectives on the Master Builder, Hilary Kitasei of the Henry Hudson Parkway Task Force observed that "Gehry is an original and has style--but does he have the taste and esthetics for the public realm?"

She pointed to Gehry's Millennium Park Bridge in Chicago, the Atlantic Yards project, and the new InterActive headquarters in Chelsea and asked, "Will these stand the test of time?" Her tone was doubtful.

At the symposium yesterday, Lynne Sagalyn of the University of Pennsylvania said that, even today, people are concerned about the commercialization of the public realm, pointing to the response to the Trump on the Ocean plan at Jones Beach. (Then again, the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues is not Jones Beach.)

No one specifically mentioned traffic--remember, Moses warned of a "China wall of traffic" if a baseball stadium were to be built--but that remains the biggest issue regarding Atlantic Yards.

From Jacobs to Moses

Sagalyn, who's been examining 26 years of press coverage of Moses, said that Moses's legacy has had a huge impact on the way urban development has been portrayed. She showed a slide of three images: Jane Jacobs at a community meeting; the large crowd discussing Ground Zero redevelopment in the Listening to the City exercise; and an eminent domain abuse sign, which she identified as coming from "a blog on Atlantic Yards."

(While she's used clip files from five major newspapers to research the legacy of Moses, Sagalyn said that to examine Atlantic Yards she's had to include "the blogs." Indeed.)

Sagalyn, who teaches real estate development and planning, noted that the battle between Jacobs and Moses "is framed as neighborhood accretions versus large gestures, but it’s not a zero sum game; cities are built with all kinds of projects."

At another juncture, Lizabeth Cohen of Harvard University observed, “I appreciate the Jane Jacobs critique, but let’s remember, Jacobs is used by some people on the right as a justification for not doing anything."

Sagalyn said the legacy of Moses is grassroots participation and “do no harm” site selection. A questioner from the audience pointed to a paucity of such participation regarding Atlantic Yards.

While Sagalyn is a formidable scholar--her book Times Square Roulette is dense with detail--in her response she offered an off-the-cuff misassessment of open space proposed for the project. She said that the developer and proponents argue “there is a lot of open space” and the opponents say it’s “not truly public” and “I think both are valid.” (Actually, while there's more open space than previously, the ratio of open space to the population declines.)

Growth in Brooklyn

In the final panel, summing up the two-day conference, Columbia University urban historian Kenneth Jackson said, "I would argue that we need big projects. I’m a fan of Jane Jacobs, but I don’t think you can depend on that to run a great city."

"I think we need to grow and change," he said, noting that "you can’t have big growth in areas of Queens” far from public transportation. By contrast, he said, "We do have it at Atlantic Yards." While we can argue about the amount of such growth, "it should be much more dense than it is now.”

I caught up with Jackson afterward to point out that no one opposes significant development on the railyard, but they question the process for disposing of a significant piece of public property. He told me he wasn’t taking sides, just pointing out the opportunity near a transit hub. (Still, even by using the term Atlantic Yards, he was repeating the developer’s meme.)

Looking forward

Robert Fishman, an architectural historian at the University of Michigan, offered some pessimism. “What I’ll call the Jane Jacobs era, of citizen participation—I say this with apprehension—I think the Jane Jacobs era is over, or is coming to an end…. Those are my ideals, but we’re nearing a whole new era in which the issue is the capacity of public administration to make tough decisions."

Thomas Wright of the Regional Plan Association was more optimistic, saying that the product can't be divorced from planning. "It might be that we don’t have institutions that are up to the challenge," he said. "If you look at the process, it’s clear that models are emerging that will do a better job." His example: Listening to the City.

“It’s amazing to me that public hearings are considered useful,” he said, noting that Moses taught his successors how to ignore such input. (So much for the Atlantic Yards public hearing.)

Government, some said, must make large-scale changes that have ripple effects. Sagalyn praised Chicago's leaders for a "willingness to invest in the public realm, not just projects."

Wright said that, in New York, "it’s not a matter of if, it’s when we regulate auto use" (via congestion pricing). That, he said, "will finance the next generation of public investment."

The changing battle

The Moses legacy offers another ripple. While he didn't make explicit reference to Atlantic Yards, historian Samuel Zipp, describing the 1950s battle to clear the West Side for Lincoln Center, explained how the conflict represented a new frame.

Those behind Moses's project argued that urban renewal had a higher mission, a symbol of national maturity, of "cultural resurgence in the midst of the Cold War." The opposition, he said, found a new way to articulate their cause, protesting not merely the loss of thousands of houses and hundreds of businesses, but their neighborhood, their world.

With Atlantic Yards, as has been argued, this issue is not so much the direct displacement or the loss of historic buildings but the effect on adjacent neighborhoods that have revived steadily since Moses's time, less specific space but "a sense of place."


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