Saturday, July 28, 2007

On complex land-use choices and "land monopoly"

Sociologist Robert Fitch's bracing 1993 book (updated 2002), The Assassination of New York, considers Robert Moses far less responsible for urban outcomes in the city than the FIRE (Finance Insurance Real Estate) elite, notably the Rockefeller family, expressing its wishes through the work of the Regional Plan Association.

Fitch's single-focus analysis meant critics in even the left-wing Nation and Monthly Review found the book's explanations--for example, of the decline in manufacturing or the city's struggles--incomplete. But they also found the book valuable, and there are some passages of particular resonance today.

Beyond Jane Jacobs

Hence this pointed observation, which substitutes a Rockefeller for the usual culprit, Moses, and raises a larger point about current land-use battles in Brooklyn and beyond:
When David Rockefeller tried to run the Lower Manhattan Expressway through Washington Square Park, you didn't have to have a degree in planning from MIT to know it was destructive. Jane Jacobs led the charge and miraculously sent the establishmentarians back to their Westchester redoubts. But land-use choices involving housing vs. jobs; the mix of income in a housing project; the question of which jobs are really viable in an urban setting; what's the best location for manufacturing--these issues don't lend themselves to such clear-cut resistance. Everyone grasps that it is people who decide where highways go. But the notion that strictly objective force, like technology and markets, the "logic of capital," determine factory and office locations is disarming. Ideas count.

(Emphasis added)

Indeed. And the issue is also the way incentives shape markets; why, for example, has Downtown Brooklyn become a home for housing, when that was not anticipated in the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning? Because tax breaks make the projects that much more attractive.

Urban planning?

Elsewhere, Fitch offers an indictment of urban planning:
To assert that the principle of disjunctive development is fundamental to urban planning helps to define its nature. Urban planning is the coordination of land monopoly. It is to the higher real estate interests what the Judge Gary dinners were to steel manufacturers. Both steel makers and FIRE folk seek to maximize their return on investment. Not to achieve growth in steel production or office building production per se.

(Emphasis in original)

City Planning

Fitch also indicts several public agencies:
[I]n the eighties it was public officials--from City Planning, the Public Development Corporation, the Port Authority, the Urban Development Corporation, Battery Park City Authority--all jostling each other in an effort to stuff builders' pockets with subsidies... It was City Planning that devised the real borough buster, midtown development plan. Or, more accurately, it was City Planning that re-tooled, simplified and carried out the Second Regional Plan's goal of swinging development from the east to the west side.


[Note: the Public Development Corporation, headed by Jim Stuckey before he went to Forest City Ratner, is now the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the Urban Development Corporation is now the Empire State Development Corporation. Both are Atlantic Yards backers.]

Fitch continues:
New York's City Planning Commission bears no resemblance to Tokyo's MITI. It has none of Daniel Burnham's soaring spirit. City Planning makes no plans--big or little. The master plan for New York that was the stated reason for creating the Commission has never materialized. Its role is to validate and legalize the plans and initiatives conceived by the city's private real estate interests.
(Emphasis added)

You can't say that's true today, if you consider City Planning's responsiveness to some neighborhood requests for downzoning and contextual zoning. But what was City Planning's letter regarding Atlantic Yards but a validation of a plan privately presented to it months earlier?

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