Saturday, May 19, 2007

On historic preservation, AY, and journalistic quality

The New York Times has assigned a notably diligent reporter, Sewell Chan, to write for the Empire Zone blog and, unfettered by space, he’s free to write long, like, um, a Mad Overkiller.

He and I both attended a panel Monday on the preservation movement, and I’ll mostly defer to his lengthy report, The Future of New York’s Past. (Chan even mentioned some of the attendees, including "Norman Oder, the Atlantic Yards critic." The Empire Zone thus threatens to become the Gawker of wonk celebrity sightings.)

Chan quotes Anthony Wood, founder and chairman of the New York Preservation Archive Project, regarding the Landmarks Preservation Law:
“Our law is not a timid document,” Mr. Wood said. “However, since its passage. The implementation of the law has been characterized by timidity, and by and large, the preservation community has come to expect low expectations from the law. It has underachieved, and we have let it.”

All about rebirth

Historic preservation consultant William Higgins offered an entertaining tour of the dichotomous ways advocates and opponents face off. While opponents, for example, may disparage a building as evoking a “shopping mall,” advocates often ignore image and emphasize “vitality” and “rebirth.”

Does that sounds a little like Atlantic Yards, ”the development dedicated to building a new vision for downtown Brooklyn”?

Buildings vs. intangibles

Higgins also observed—absent from Chan’s generally thorough report—how “inside every activist there’s a contemplative person.” It’s also important to “think about the pleasure of the historical environment,” he said, recalling an hour he spent in the courtyard of Trinity Church.

His point was that activists spend much effort trying to save specific structures but should also spend more time “working on a language for these intangibles for historic preservation.”

In the battle over the Atlantic Yards project, there are relatively few buildings of historic merit that preservationists aim to save. (But there certainly are some, and their preservation would preclude a planned superblock.)

However, that issue of intangibles–a sense of place–was brought up by Shirley Morillo, who wrote about Atlantic Yards for her Columbia master’s thesis in historic preservation:
Other area resources include less fixed, and more difficult to quantify factors such as scale, the skyline, view corridors, and sense of place. Inherently a challenge to measure, claims for these characteristics are made more difficult because the scope of the project’s true area of impact is so difficult to limit.

Tradeoffs

Is such an argument too precious? One commenter on the blog offered an interesting challenge:
The other side of this debate relates to the ‘character’ of a neighborhood, the ways in which its structures and their uses relate to each other. Here, advocates wish to preserve not the physical forms of the city, but their emotional ‘feel.’ At its best, this is the impulse to restrain the construction of a massive, modern tower on an unoccupied plot of land in the middle of a row of historic townhouses. At its worst, this is the impulse of those living in a particular neighborhood to freeze its natural development and evolution at an arbitrarily chosen moment, and perhaps inflate the value of their own properties in the process.

The commenter added:
There is a lot of sanctimony and piety, but little discussion of the tradeoffs inherent in any process of preservation, little sense that the genuine benefits have to be weighed against the substantial costs.

Well, then. What's the best way to integrate new, and more dense, development, around the edges of historic Prospect Heights? There would be towers, not in the "middle of a row of historic townhouses," but very nearby. The issue is as much process as esthetics.

On journalistic quality

I made my point about intangibles in a comment on the Empire Zone, where the comments section detoured into an off-topic discussion--which I did not invite--of my journalistic bona fides.

I hadn't made an issue of Chan's description of me, but another commenter defended me, saying that I was not a critic of the Atlantic Yards project but mainly of the press coverage. I clarified that to say that the Times’s description was not incorrect but incomplete, since I consider myself reporter and critic.

Times deputy metro editor Patrick LaForge chimed in, responding, “Identifying you as a reporter might cause readers of The Times to think that we agreed with your (apparent) assessment of yourself as a neutral observer.”

In my response, I acknowledged (via this link) that I’m not neutral, but argued that “my reportage is just that and, I’d argue, more comprehensive and intellectually honest than that which appears in the Times regarding Atlantic Yards.”

LaForge offered a partial olive branch: “So to call you a critic, while highlighting your role for our readers, does not preclude the idea that you are also engaged in a type of reportage, one with a long and storied tradition.”

OK, I'm not actually a reporter, but I am engaged in a "type of reportage"--like coverage of the federal lawsuit and state lawsuit regarding Atlantic Yards that almost no one else bothered to do. (Please, though, let's leave that Empire Zone discussion alone.)

Proving my point

Yesterday, my case was bolstered when the underinformed Post and the Times misreported aspects of a court case related to Atlantic Yards, and New York Magazine's blog, finding snark more seductive than substance, got it spectacularly wrong.

NoLandGrab (and again) and Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn have the details on this brutally weird episode.

(Here's my straightforward report. Reportage, or reporter?)