Saturday, September 08, 2007

On journalistic criticism, process, and governmental competence

Are the issues revolving around Atlantic Yards uncomplicated? A 5/11/07 New York Times article about Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, "perhaps the nation’s only investigative reporter turned big-city mayor," quoted Miller as predicting she won't return to journalism:
“It’s very easy to see things as black and white and to just sit there in your bathrobe at 2 o’clock in the morning eating M&M’s and drinking black coffee and skewering everybody,” she said. “But now that I’ve been the hunted, I could never go back and be the hunter.”


That's a lesson, indeed, for critics and opponents of the Atlantic Yards plan, and the politicians and developer backing it.

Everyone loves Extell?

For example, many Atlantic Yards opponents backed the bid by the developer Extell for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard, because Extell would build a project limited to the 8.5-acre railyard, add rather than subtract streets, and go through the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP. (A smaller project would include no arena and less affordable housing.)

The Extell plan was based on, but not completely faithful to, the community-developed UNITY plan and the subsequent Principles for Responsible Community Development on the Vanderbilt Rail Yards The difference is that the Extell plan also would be very dense, though, as a smaller project overall without an arena and as much housing (both market and affordable), the strain on the area infrastructure would be much less than with Atlantic Yards.

But had the Extell project emerged on its own, without the competing Atlantic Yards plan, it's likely the community would have been divided, with opponents calling it too dense and defenders saying that such density was required to make the project work economically.

Extell has generated significant controversy on the Upper West Side with its Ariel luxury towers, which at 31 stories and 37 stories in contrast to the typical 16-story limit on Broadway north of 96th street. (The developer bought air rights from neighboring buildings rather than got a state override of zoning, as with Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project.)

After all, some AY opponents have emphasized the scale of row-house Brooklyn, while, to be realistic, some mid-rise development, at the least, would be constructed over much of the railyards as well as on the adjacent Pacific Street industrial block. Indeed, a revision of the UNITY plan, to be unveiled on September 24, likely will call for more density than did the original.

Affordable housing

As for the affordable housing component, ACORN's Bertha Lewis, who signed the Housing Memorandum of Understanding with Forest City Ratner, defends the deal as the best that was possible, given the significant amount of housing being built nearby with no affordable component.

Given that this was public land, rather than private as-of-right development, any project would contain some affordable housing; the question was how much. How negotiate the tradeoff between the value of increased density and the potential impact on infrastructure and quality of life? After all, if the goal is housing at all costs, we could always build subsidized housing in Prospect Park.

The issue is process

This issue is how to mediate among competing claims.

Amanda Burden, director of the Department of City Planning, discussed the issue an October 2006 interview:
There is no such thing as successful planning or a good plan without real, ongoing community involvement. An engaged community is what makes a neighborhood work. No one has all the answers--not planners, not governments, not elected officials, not even community groups or citizens. Good plans, real plans that can do their job of making people's lives better, come from the often tedious, often frustrating, always complex and iterative process of involving everyone who has a stake in the community.

(Emphasis added)

That process has been absent in the Atlantic Yards debate, given the bypass of city review; even the contentious Columbia University Community Benefits Agreement looks far more transparent than the "pioneering" Brooklyn example.

The need for density

The Regional Plan Association (RPA) has offered praise and criticism of Atlantic Yards, citing the importance of density near a transit hub. In testimony last August, the RPA offered measured support for the project:
In this instance, however, it would not be in the public interest to start from scratch. Even an improved process should still likely result in a project approximating the scale and ambition of the Forest City Ratner proposal. The city and the region need to aggressively develop offices, housing, retail and entertainment in appropriate locations, and there are few locations more suited for dense, mixed-use development than the Atlantic Yards.


I think that's speculative, since an improved process would involve many more voices. Also, the statement that "the Atlantic Yards" is suited for development fudges the difference between development over the railyards and development over adjacent blocks.

Atlantic Yards would be 292 apartments per acre--"extreme density" compared to Stuyvesant Town, Battery Park City, and even new projects like the New Domino and Queens West.

What's the limit? That hasn't been discussed.

Better planning

More recently, however, the RPA, with dismay, has cited Atlantic Yards as an example of "city-making" that requires much more planning.

Of course, planning does not imply consensus. At some point, the city perspective must be balanced with the neighborhood's view, the big picture with the smaller one. As Jerilyn Perine, former director of the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development, said in May: “I think there’s a real difference between planning and what people think of as community planning. Planning should be done by planners.”

But the work of planners does require some oversight. Dallas Mayor Miller suggests that it's never easy, from the outside, to get the balance right. On the other hand, as Mayor Mike Bloomberg's PlaNYC 2030 suggests, there are much more transparent ways to develop over railyards, stating:
Building communities requires a carefully tailored approach to local conditions and needs that can only be developed with local input. We will begin the process of working with communities, the agencies that operate these facilities, and other stakeholders to sort through these complicated issues.

That was absent in the Atlantic Yards plan.

Stern's critique

Former City Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, now helming New York Civic, wrote a 5/25/07 commentary, headlined LOYALTY IS DEMANDED, BUT CONFLICT IS INEVITABLE AS FOURTH ESTATE IS CRITICAL OF PUBLIC OFFICIALS, noting the adversarial relationship between journalistics and elected officials:
There are many totally legitimate questions to ask and the press conference is a worthwhile institution. Often officials skirt the edge of truth telling by their evasive, ambiguous, or misleading replies. They are not under oath. In fact, the inadequate answers may come because they are unready, unwilling or unable to provide accurate information.

They may be involved in negotiations, or embroiled in a lawsuit, where out-of-court commentary is inappropriate. They may not know the answer to a question, yet not wish to appear ignorant by saying so.

The failure to disclose the housing subsidies for Atlantic Yards before its approval, I think, falls in the category of "unwilling."

He continues:
...Of course, some journalists are relentlessly hostile to some officials, and try to make their bones by proving that the people they cover are crooks, imbeciles, racists or frauds. There is danger from slanted reporting, and if it is done cleverly enough it is difficult to detect. When the reporter is dripping with indignation, he does not believe that what he writes is slanted. There is a significant difference in the way The New York Times or Fox News may report the same event. Yet neither believes it is unfair, one in fact promotes itself as fair and balanced.

When it comes to Atlantic Yards, as I've commented, objectivity and neutrality can be complicated issues.

Mistakes made?

Stern writes:
It is particularly difficult for an observer to comment adversely on an action or position of a generally good administration, or about a public official with whose policy objectives one is sympathetic. Other officials may be frequent objects of criticism, often for ethical reasons. But even honest and decent public officials make mistakes. There are cases where the good guys are wrong and the bad guys are right. The fair-minded journalist discusses issues on their merits, not on the basis of what the sides are.

Errors are usually based on ignorance, sometimes corruption, rarely malice.


From this perspective, Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz--lauded by Coney Island USA's Dick Zigun, who called the city administration "shockingly competent" when it comes to Coney redevelopment--may think they're doing the right thing with Atlantic Yards.

But Bloomberg, for example, wouldn't acknowledge that the subway system is overcrowded. And when it comes to Atlantic Yards, the record suggests, the "shocking competence," apparently, has its lapses.

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