Friday, September 14, 2007

"Listening to the City" and Atlantic Yards

Could the Atlantic Yards project have been improved--or would a different development have emerged--had there been more citizen input? It's worth thinking about.

Thomas Bender's Power Broken: To build great cities, we need more citizen input - not another Robert Moses (reg. required), in the Fall issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, takes off from the recent Robert Moses exhibits and companion book to muse on the way forward.

Before doing so, Bender suggests that recent projects, including Times Square redevelopment and Battery Park City, contradict claims of stasis, and notes that "the recently approved Atlantic Yards project, a huge mixed-use development in central Brooklyn including an arena for professional basketball, proceeds, after a great deal of public discussion and review (albeit a controversial one) by government bureaucracies."

In Streetsblog, Brad Aaron says that "Bender missteps by citing the progression of Atlantic Yards and Hudson Yards as rebuttals to the Mosesist ethic." I'm not sure they're as much rebuttals to the latter but rather, as Bender writes, to "the supposition of urban paralysis."

But Aaron's closer to the target in observing, "It would be difficult to find many people, if any at all, from the public advocacy arena who would say Atlantic Yards has been anything other than a developer-driven monster."

A democratic path forward

Bender suggests a path forward:
Instead of talking about a new construction czar for cities, we should be talking about democratic institutions for managing current and future development. We need deliberative planning tools that work better than the grab-bag of clumsy mechanisms for public participation we have now, which are rightly resented by developers and neighborhoods, if for different reasons. Transparency and responsibility–with respect to public financing in its various forms–are fundamental. Representative institutions also are necessary, ones that organize dialogue at the different scales of the neighborhood, the borough, the city, and perhaps even the region. City planning should understand itself as, ultimately, the work of city-making rather than simply the agency of growth and development. The mechanisms of citizen empowerment must be clearly defined, and that power must be appropriate to the role envisioned.

(Emphasis added)

Remember, the Regional Plan Association's (RPA) Rob Lane in May cited Atlantic Yards as an example of "city-making"--a multi-year project that required much more input beforehand and a mechanism for oversight.

Listening to the City

In March, Thomas Wright of the Regional Plan Association (RPA) called the RPA-sponsored deliberation exercise for the World Trade Center site, Listening to the City, an example of a new model for public input that transcends the rancor and posturing of a typical public hearing.

Bender seems to agree:
To accomplish that, some institutional innovation is necessary. We need to think more imaginatively about future forums, perhaps turning to creative uses of new technologies. Without making too much of it, let me mention a recent example. When the future of Ground Zero was still undecided, a group of 80 civic organizations led by the Regional Plan Association, using a novel technology of networked laptops and some kind of sorting program, brought together in two meetings a few thousand representative New Yorkers to deliberate on guidelines for rebuilding.... The preferences that emerged from our table and others were then fashioned into a set of design directives. The results were fairly general, but they pointed toward a plausible urban aspiration for an area of the city that had evolved into something both more and less than a financial center. A memorial was the highest priority, with some disagreement as to whether it should be figurative or abstract. Mixed use for the area was strongly favored–offices, street retail, residence, and cultural. Anything suggesting a new "freedom tower" was rejected.


Listening to the City, by the way, was run by an organization called AmericaSpeaks, which "designs and facilitates large-scale town meetings on public policy issues." Did the founders of BrooklynSpeaks, the coalition of groups that aim to significantly change but not kill Atlantic Yards, choose a deliberate echo?

But who listened?

Bender, however, notes the flaws in the Listening to the City plan:
This was in many ways a model for public participation. The problem was that nobody with power was listening; a non-accountable, appointed authority made all of the decisions. The result–an abstract memorial, a "freedom tower," maximization of office space–was Moses all over again...


(In contrast, see Benjamin Hemric's critical comments below.)

Goldberger's take

In his chronicle Up from Zero, about the contested process to rebuild at the World Trade Center site, architecture critic Paul Goldberger offers measured praise for the Listening to the City process. Describing the first meeting, where participants sought a consensus vision of Lower Manhattan a decade hence, he writes:
Out of all of this, not surprisingly, nothing particularly fresh or different emerged. The groups favored mixed-use, lively neighborhoods and attention to both the commemorative aspects of a memorial and the commercial aspects of the city. The conclusions of Listening to the City were earnest and well-meaning, if unexceptional, but the event did help to move public sentiment closer to compromise between the extreme voices that had predominated earlier in the process, when the discussion was polarized between those who wanted Ground Zero to be entirely a memorial and those who felt that restoring the city's commercial life was the only priority that mattered on the site.

The second meeting, a much larger gathering of some 4000 people at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, participants looked askance at the six plans presented, even as Alexander Garvin, an academic and planner working at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, insisted, "We are not talking about architecture here--we are talking about site plans and principles."

Goldberger points out that participants wanted to restore the street grid, which "seemed in a way to represent the ultimate triumph of Jane Jacobs over Robert Moses." (Indeed, in the New York Observer this week, Matthew Schuerman writes about how "Greenwich Street" has become the choice address in the new grid.)

To Goldberger, the effort represents a significant step forward from the dominant Moses-era mode of neighborhood protest in response to ambitious projects:
At Listening to the City, they programmed themselves to say yes, to ask for more vision, not less... It may have taken the extraordinary circumstances of September 11, or it may have been part of a broader evolution....


What if, in Brooklyn

In Brooklyn, could there have been such an exercise? What would the "site" have been, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's 8.5-acre Vanderbilt Yard or Forest City Ratner's 21-acre (later 22-acre) "footprint"? If an arena was at issue, should alternate sites have be considered, like Coney Island?

How trade off density and cost, market-rate and subsidized units? Even the post-Atlantic Yards UNITY plan workshops came up with a design for the railyard that proved not completely feasible, at least if you consider the subsequent Extell bid, which implied more density.

The most recent UNITY exercise suggested some very affordable housing--but how to pay for it? (Stay tuned for a revamped UNITY plan to be released on Sep. 24.)

Those in the public who support Forest City Ratner's vision believe that the benefits are worth the costs; opponents say the opposite. But how to evaluate those costs and benefits without consideration of larger issues like the overall opportunities for density and affordable housing in the city and borough?

At the very least, though, some competing plans or even frameworks could have dispelled the "Atlantic Yards or nothing" meme that still persists. (Imagine if the process had begun with an RFP from the MTA, rather than have the agency issue one belatedly, 18 months after the project was announced.)

And the participation of a wide range of civic organizations, planners, and architects could have engendered public discussion about the values and tradeoffs at hand, rather than the more limited perspectives of Forest City Ratner and its Community Benefit Agreement "negotiation" partners. (Remember, Bertha Lewis of ACORN, whose role, understandably, is to advocate for affordable housing, said she couldn't address environment, density, and traffic.)

Might a Brooklyn version of "Listening to the City," for example, suggested an override of antiquated guidelines regarding parking and instead called for many fewer parking spaces?

Instead, on 12/10/03, we got a press conference in which top elected officials announced their support for Atlantic Yards. Mayor Mike Bloomberg said, "I can just tell you that this administration will put on a full-court press for the approval of this project."

The next day, the New York Times's starchitecture critic, Herbert Muschamp, declared, "A Garden of Eden grows in Brooklyn." It seems clear in retrospect that he was not listening to the city, nor even to the neighborhood.

There's a balance, obviously between critical judgment and public consensus, between public planning and public participation. Still, it's notable that Atlantic Yards has, in Lane's example, the silence of PlaNYC, and much public rhetoric, emerged as an example of what not to do.

3 comments:

  1. [Sorry if this is a repeat, but I haven't used this kind of comment screen in a while, and I'm not sure my comment went through.]

    Hi!

    I've been reading -- AND GREATLY ADMIRING -- your blog on and off for the past year or so. However, I think your admiration for "Listening to the City" -- both the event itself AND the basic concept -- is greatly misplaced. I say this as someone who actually participated in the main "Listening to the City" event at the Javits Center and as someone who was also involved in a community based advocacy group that that helped defeat the tunneling of West St. (An idea that seemed to be, at least initially, popular with some of the sponsoring organizations of this event.)

    Not only did this particular manifestation of the "Listening to the City" process exhbit serious problems with respect to fairness and scientific methodology, but the BASIC PROCESS itself is shockingly biased and unscientific.

    Unfortunately I don't have the time at the moment to describe the problems with "Listening to the City" in detail. However, someday soon I hope to finally get a chance to put together a detailed critique of it -- something with a title like, "Listening to the City: New 21st Century Public Hearing -- or Newfangled Infomercial?" (-- or 21st Century High Tech Mob Rule?) (-- or New 21st Century Kangaroo Court?) A few months ago, you very nicely dissected a pro-Ratner development "poll" by someone at, I believe, "Crain's New York Business." When I read news accounts of this poll and then read your analysis, I was reminded of "Listening to the City" (the similarities being that they are both "junk" science that was used for propaganda purposes), and I had meant to write to you to both congratulate you on your post and to mention that I someday hoped to do a similar kind of analysis of "Listening to the City."

    Here is a very brief sketch of some of the things that were wrong with this supposed "21st Century Town Hall Meeting":

    1) While the body of participants may have exhibt some demographic diversity, basically the participants all heard about the event through, or were specifically invited by, the sponsoring organizations (who happened to have had their own particular agendas regarding the rebuilding). So while the event may generally have mimicked (sp?) a cross section of the population, the actual thoughts and biases [sp?] held by the participants weren't necessarily reflective of the population at large (which would be the case if the people had been randomly sampled). It's like having a Republican or Democratic convention with a demographically diverse group of Democrats or Republicans. Such a demographically diverse groups don't mean that the opinions of the opposing political party are going to be heard at either convention.

    2) The 5,000 (?) or so people were divided up into 500 (?) tables of 10 (?). (It's been a while, so I forget the actual size of the event.) That means that for any issue to be effectively discussed, with particpants hearing useful information from both a pro and a con side, there would have to be at least 500 people for EACH POSITION on EACH ISSUE -- precisely evenly divided among all the tables (i.e., with at least one person for each viewpoint on each issue being assigned to each and every table).

    3) Participants at the tables were asked -- sometimes almost coerced -- to speak out on an issue, whether or not they wanted, whether or not they had any relevant knowledge to contribute.

    4) Each table voted on an issue (brought up by the moderator) and then submitted a "filtered" GROUP (via one person at each table who was assigned to be the typist). These responses were then FILTERED by a group of volunteers (perhaps sharing the same general viewpoint of the organizing groups from whom many found out about the event?) manning computers WHO THEN CHOSE WHICH RESPONSES TO PASS ON TO THE MAIN FLOOR. (These responses were used to formulate the questions that would be asked of the group later in the day.)

    5) The questions that were asked later (for these questions participants had individual keypads) were shockingly biased! For instance, questions that were often leading questions to begin with, didn't even allow for participants to cast a truly negative vote!

    For example, there was actually no way for someone to disagree with the idea of a putting West Side into a tunnel (an idea that, at the time, was accepted as the "conventional wisdom" by many, including, so it seems, a number of the sponsoring organizations who quietly touted the idea in the ONLY information material that was handed out to partipants).

    Basically the question that was asked regarding the tunneling issue was, "How important is it to create a better connection between Battery Park City and the rest of Lower Manhattan?: a) Very important; b) Somewhat important; c)important; d) not important." No where were people given the opportunity to actually say that there were better ways to accomplish this "Mom and apple pie" goal. (Anyone vehemently against the tunnel had to ask themselves, "Of course a better connection is important, but how do I express a negative vote against the tunnel option?")

    While it may be obvious that this question wasn't actually about a tunnel per se, this question was nevertheless interpreted by, I believe, the Listening to the City people, the supporters of the tunnel and the public at large (who weren't really aware of either the "Listening to the City" set-up, the wording of the question or the wording of the answer).

    One reason I don't have time to go into more detail, by the way, is that I'm trying right now to put together a critque of that Robert Moses exhibition (yeah, I know that was a while ago), and I also hope to write something about the Jane Jacobs exhibit and programs that are coming up. (I'm not sure yet if I will be able to make the program that you are participating in, though.)

    Speaking of Jane Jacobs:

    1)Despite what people seem to think, Jane Jacobs was quoted in an interview in the New Yorker (I believe this was the publication, I don't have the article handy at the moment) as NOT being in favor of putting Greenwich St. through the World Trade Center site. Putting Greenwich St. through the site is mindless, auto-pilot thinking on the part of some of her supporters, so it seems to me. (Think for a moment, if the terrorists had hit the Pan Am Building instead of the World Trade Center and Grand Central Terminal had been leveled, would it really be a good idea to push 43rd St., 44th St. and Park Avenue through the site? While the WTC was not GCT, obviously, there are times and circumstances, nevertheless, when it is NOT a good idea to put streets through a superblock, and given the unusal topography (similar to that of GCT, by the way) and the unique circumstances, the WTC situation was one of them.

    Plus, by the way, Jane Jacobs also fought for the removal of Fifth Avenue through the Washington Square Park "superblock" and greatly admired the siting of the New York Public Library on the Bryant Park "superblock." Sometimes it makes sense to leave streets out, and the WTC site is a very rare instance of one of them.

    2) I think Jane Jacobs would have been just LIVID and popped a gasket if she had particpated in this event (especially if she were a resident of Battery Park City). By the way, the participants at "Listening to the City" were from all over the nation and the world, and even many New Yorkers have never actually crossed West St. to get to Battery Park City -- so, so much for the idea of an event like "Listening to the City" honoring the importance of local knowledge!)

    Since I don't have the time to dig up my notes on the event and to write in more detail about it, you may want to check-out Philip Nobel's book, "Sixteen Acres" [?] (or was it "Up From Ground Zero" [?] -- I get the titles of the two books confused). Philip Nobel (I assume you know who he is, but if not he is an architect, I believe, and a frequent contributor to publications like "Metropolis") has a much more jaundiced view of the event and even describes an outburst of frustration on the part of the urban designer, Michael Sorkin. The name, "Listening to the City," is not listed in the index to his book, but the name of the moderater of the event, Carolyn Lukenmeyer [?] (or something like that) is listed in the index instead. (Unfortunately, even Philip Nobel seems to have missed out on some of the worst features of "Listening to the City.")

    P.S. -- I once spoke to Paul Goldberger during a "question and answer" period after a talk that he gave. He mentioned that although he observed "Listening to the City," he didn't actually participate in it. That, along with the fact that he appears to be sympathetic to much of the same agenda as the sponsoring organizations, seems to explain to me why he doesn't seem to see the glaring problems with its methodology. (But if the shoe was on the other foot, if this event was about Atlantic Yards, for instance, and it was sponsored by the various pro-Ratner "community" organizations and civic groups, and they were just as insensitive to opposing viewpoints, I think Goldberger (assuming he disfavors the Ratner plan) would be much more aware of how bad the "Listening to the City" approach to a "public hearing" is.

    Give me a straight forward public hearing -- where people are at least more skeptical about the hidden agendas and BOTH pro and con sides of the debate can actually be heard by ALL -- anyday.

    Benjamin Hemric

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  2. Thanks for that thoughtful response. My knowledge of "Listening to the City" is all secondhand, so it's quite possible that closer observation would have led me to greater skepticism. (I read Nobel's book a while back but don't own it, so Goldberger's account was closer at hand. I could've done more research, that's for sure.)

    I don't so much admire "Listening to the City" as see it as a another "what if" regarding the Atlantic Yards project. The one Atlantic Yards public hearing, which was followed by two less-attended "community forums" (in form virtually the same), certainly allowed all sides to speak, but there was not a lot of listening going on. Apparently we should be thinking about a third way.

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  3. [Again, sorry if this is a repeat, but I my screen didn't show a message saying that the comment has been submitted and is awaiting approval by the moderator.]


    Thanks for your response (and for overlooking all the typos that I now see in my original post!).

    I agree that public hearings suffer from the fact that public officials, even those present at the event, often turn a "deaf ear," as Jane Jacobs has said, to the proceedings. This was certainly true at the WTC rebuilding hearings. It was pretty obvious that the public officials had already made up their minds and were just letting the participants talk.

    What, however, is a possible "third way"? In my opinion, one approach worth looking into is the good old-fashioned public debate where you have a knowledgeable, articulate person (or persons) on one side of the issue debating with a knowledgeable, articulate person (or persons) on the other side of the issue. This way, both sides can present the facts, the argumentation, the slide illustrations, etc. supporting their own side and each will have such arguements, etc. knowledgably challenged by the other side. (In a sense, such a debate is like a trial of the issue in the "court of public opinion.")

    Of course it might be difficult putting together such a debate, especially for small local issues. But both the Atlantic Yards controversy and the WTC Rebuilding have, so it seems to me, the sufficient degree of public interest to warrant such a debate format.

    Given the enormous amount of interest in the WTC rebuilding, I was actually hoping (and made the suggestion via letter to members of the board of directors of the LMDC) that Public Television sponsor a series of debates on the various issues (e.g., a debate on putting vehicular streets through the site; a debate on rebuilding the entire square footage of the complex, etc.).

    Another instance where I think such a debate, or series of debates, could be helpful is in the discussion about the expansion of the Javits Center. The Municipal Art Society, among other organizations, supports a totally different kind of expansion of the Javits Center than what New York State is planning. When I first heard in the newspapers about the MAS's position, it didn't make sense to me. (It wasn't even clear to me, someone with a degree in urban planning, what they were actually suggesting.) But with a great deal of effort on my part, I was able to find a website (sponsored by a division of Baruch College) where the MAS's alternative plan was laid out in a detailed way. I was very impressed!

    Now when you think about how influential the MAS is (and how influential its partners in this plan also are) and how little of their plan actually made it into the news media (so that even someone like myself, who's very interested in the issue, had a great deal of difficulty finding out what exactly the two positions were), you can see, I think, how useful a public debate format (especially one that is televised and recorded on tape) can be.

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