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Critic Goldberger: post-Moses era represents failure to plan

The failure of government to plan, to imagine, instead choosing to subcontract planning to the private sector, is the hallmark of our post-Robert Moses era--even more so than the difficulty in reconciling public participation and major projects, according to Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic of The New Yorker.

He spoke at another panel discussion on Moses's legacy, held Wednesday night at the Museum of the City of New York. In an article for the New York Times's Empire Zone blog titled What Would Moses Do?, Sewell Chan offers a good summary (which saved me some transcription of quotes); I'll focus more on Goldberger's comments, which also included a salute to Atlantic Yards bloggers.

"There is no promised land of easy planning," noted Goldberger, also former architecture critic for the Times. "First, it wasn't really as simple back then as it looks now... There is a tendency to think Moses snapped his fingers and everything happened."

He suggested that the "post-Westway era" represented "not a brief interlude but a permanent change." It wasn't that citizens can block all projects, "but there will never again be a simple process."

"I think it's naive to think that Moses's power, such as it was, rested solely in itself," he added. Rather, Moses managed a "three-part system" involving the public authorities he controlled, public officials and government agencies, and private financiers.

“When everything was working right, Moses had these forces in a kind of harmonic balance, an equilibrium. I think that equilibrium faltered a little more than [Robert Caro's biography] The Power Broker would have us believe," Goldberger said. "But that doesn't matter--the real point today is that it doesn't exist at all any more." Not only do we lack a Moses, but we lack that system.

Government doesn't plan

"Government has pretty much stopped planning," he continued. "That, more than the absence of Moses, is what defines our time now, to me, at least. The coalition that Moses orchestrated so effectively, for so long, is based on the presumption that the public sector, whether in the form of Moses himself or elected officials, made the major decisions and the private sector issued bonds to pay for them. The public sector had the ideas, in another words, and the private sector executed them. It doesn’t work that way now, and I don't think it has for a while."

"The public sector now seems to issue RFQs [Requests for Quotations] and RFPs [Requests for Proposals] and throws the ball into the private sector's court," he said, noting that the RFPs often lack guidance, and simply ask the private sector to come up with the program. "You show us and we'll be on your team to execute it. And then you explain how you will pay for it, and we'll negotiate some incredibly complex economic arrangement between government and the private sector that will ensure that we will be in bed together forever."

He cited Columbus Circle, Moynihan Station, Governor’s Island, the West Side railyards plan, Atlantic Yards, and Ground Zero as examples of "the public sector turning planning over to the private sector and letting it propose. The public sector has become, for all intents and purposes, an organizer, an impresario, a referee, an enabler and a negotiator of the projects that are conceived and packaged by the private sector. Planning, in effect, has been subcontracted out."

Even with those minimal standards, I'd observe, Atlantic Yards may fall short. Even the process packaging the project represents a sweetheart deal, according to Atlantic Yards opponents, because the Metropolitan Transportation Authority didn't issue an RFP for the Vanderbilt Yard until 18 months after the city and state backed developer Forest City Ratner's plan.

Planning and participation

Goldberger said the issue today was more the government's capacity for vision than the accommodation of multiple voices. "Now, I see glimmers of an attempt to recover some initiative in the public sector, and I think surely the efforts by [Deputy Mayor] Dan Doctoroff and Mayor [Mike] Bloomberg and the whole [PlaNYC] 2030 initiative is very definitely an attempt to return to the notion that the public sector can set an agenda. But still, you wonder whether that will survive these larger forces in another administration. In any case, this recent effort notwithstanding, the general reluctance of the government to imagine has been the real change from the Moses era until now--more sweeping than even the process of public participation and the democratization of planning, the aspect that has been more talked about."

He cautioned that the two phenomena were different. "Public participation came first... My sense is that public participation for all its virtues also led to a degree of caution and hesitation on the part of the public sector, which increasingly came to feel that its main job was to build consensus and not offend anybody. Letting the private sector take over was a natural next step."

In the immediate post-Moses era in the 1970s, he said, "things were so tough and the city was so poor" the city had no money and energy to plan. "We're really far beyond that by now," he said, but we still struggle with its legacy, "the reluctance of the public sector to show real vision and to operate with a determination to make things happen. How much of it we recover--how much of it we actually want to recover--is what we're all dealing with now, and why Moses seems, at this moment in history" to be such a compelling figure.

Participation vs. process?

Later, moderator Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society, said he thought Goldberger had made a "chilling offhand remark" that there will never again be simple process to build major projects. Barwick said he hopes we can find a way to reconcile citizen participation and the public sector, especially the capacity to build infrastructure.

Moses, he reminded the crowd, was not thrown out of office by critic Jane Jacobs; the responsible party was Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

Goldberger responded that the lack of a simple process doesn't mean we can't have a working on: "I think that today, as opposed to ten years, we're much more cognizant of the fact, and much more willing to admit it. But it will not be easy, because the world of citizen participation, which we all believe is fundamentally good, and brings good to the process, but--y'know, there's no free lunch. And the complexity of it is part of the price we pay for democracy.... We're never going to be able to do it by decree."

The state, the blogs, & AY

Barwick pointed out that major projects like Moynihan Station and Atlantic Yards are shepherded by the Empire State Development Corporation and thus bypass citizen participation. "In a way, there's more power today" than under Moses, he said.

Goldberger responded,“The nature of citizen participation looks different today,” he said. “It doesn’t happen through public hearings. Look at the extent to which blogs about Atlantic Yards have in fact become a part of public discourse and shifted a great deal of public opinion and slowed down the project and in fact may well redirect it to a certain extent.”

Barwick commented, “I hope you’re right.”

Bloggers (including myself) have played more of a role in substituting for press coverage than anything else, I think. And the credit for slowing down the project depends on several factors, including the reaction to the West Side Stadium debacle and the citizen movement that has led to lawsuits challenging Atlantic Yards.

Then again, the increased scrutiny of Atlantic Yards may have delayed the issuance of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. And if "public discourse" is a part of citizen participation, then Goldberger has a point. Bloggers are part of a more robust public discussion of projects like Atlantic Yards and may have helped shift public opinion, but I don't think a solution for citizen participation has been achieved.

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