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At MCNY panel, defending dissent and promoting the better way to develop (not like Atlantic Yards)

A panel discussion last Thursday night held at the Museum of the City of New York was supposed to focus on the Westway proposal of the 1970s and the transformation of the Huntington Hartford Museum at Columbus Circle into the Museum of Art and Design.

But the Civic Talk, sponsored by Henry Stern’s New York Civic and titled “What If? Battles Over Development,” was notable for some rhetorical disagreement about the nature of civic opposition and some strong opinions on the right way to develop in New York. And Atlantic Yards came up not as a good example but as something to be avoided.

Channeling Moses

In an echo of some of the Robert Moses revisionism that has surfaced in the past few years, Adrian Benepe, the city’s Commissioner of Parks & Recreation, set the stage by wondering whether some great public works produced by master builder/power broker Moses, such as Orchard Beach, Jones Beach, and 11 public pools, could be built today. It will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, he pointed out, to build on the city’s brownfields.

“If we get bogged down in factionalism and fighting and whether this small piece of land might somehow impact this minnow,” he said, an apparent reference to the the legal battle that snagged Westway, “we will never build the great public works, we’ll never build the great parks of the 21st century... We’ve got to get together and unite and say, what’s the great common good here.”

That’s a reasonable argument, and one that moderator Stern, a former City Council member and Parks Commissioner, took up. “We have a cult of landmarking,” Stern said, noting that “no one hates a high rise more, with greater intensity than residents of the last high rise, which was built a block away.” He called for “balance and moderation.”

Places to develop

Planner Alexander Garvin described how his work for the city and the 2012 Olympic bid and his subsequent work as a consultant all ran together. He showed a map from 1972 that depicted some 50 potential sites for housing. Several have been built or are under consideration, such as Battery Park City, Roosevelt Island, Riverside South, and Queens West.

(Graphics from Visions for New York City: Housing and the Public Realm, now on Garvin's web site. It was originally prepared in May 2006 for the New York City Economic Development Corporation but not released. A leaked version was published by Streetsblog in August 2006.)

Then Garvin pointed to the proposal in PlaNYC (which omits mention of Atlantic Yards) to cover railyards and highways, “places where you wouldn’t have to relocate anybody,” such as the Prospect Expressway in Brooklyn (below) or Sunnyside Yards in Queens.

He also cited Sunset Park in Brooklyn and Homeport in Staten Island as underutilized waterfront sites. “There were opportunities available, in 1972, and they’re still available... and one day, in some government, we will actually have a series of people who will push them through and get them built.”

Enough places to build

There are enough sites to build more than 300,000 units of housing, he said, “so when someone tells you there’s nowhere we can build, it’s nonsense.” He acknowledged that “we may not want to build there, or it may not be cost-effective.”

Both of those factors can be in flux; for example, for years it was not cost-effective to build on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard. Then, Forest City Ratner proposed a plan before the MTA put the site out for bid.

(Remember Forest City Ratner's flier: Atlantic Yards: Helping Solve Brooklyn’s Housing Crisis? Well, sure, it or another development could help. But, following Garvin's logic, we don’t need to freight quite so much density on one site, because other sites are available.)

Increased density

Garvin also pointed to “places that could support increased density,” a recommendation he said, that he would’ve put in PlaNYC.

He cited Third Avenue in the Bronx, which once had an elevated subway and still retains both a population sufficient to support mass transit and numerous abandoned or underutilized sites for development.

The report notes that, under existing zoning, developing vacant and underutilized sites in the Bronx near Third Avenue would add as many as 36,000 units to the housing stock, while rezoning could "add up to 114,000 new units." So that undercuts the argument for "extreme density" at the Atlantic Yards site.

“If you look at the site and say, ‘OK, what are the sites that are built at half of allowable FAR [Floor Area Ratio] or less, or a quarter of the allowable FAR or less?’, they’d be built up with new housing,” he said, pointing to a map (right) that showed a plethora of sites. “Take a look at all of those sites. If you provided mass transit service and transformed it into a boulevard, you’d get a great deal of new housing.”

Note that, in the Atlantic Yards case, the Empire State Development Corporation determined that a building that is less than 60 percent of FAR is blighted--a rule that could be used all over the city and is thus questioned in the appeal of a judge’s decision dismissing a challenge to the AY environmental review.

Finding opportunities

Garvin also pointed to Astoria, where “a new transit line on a landscaped boulevard” going west to the East River, “could provide tremendous amounts of new housing” on underutilized sites.

“I think these opportunities exist all over New York," he said, and the public "should be presented with the opportunities, not just the problems. With such opportunities, he said, "we can overcome” a variety of opposition, from NIMBY (not in my backyard) to--an acronym new to many in the audience--NOPE (not on planet Earth).

Defending dissent, even NIMBY

It was up to the spare, pensive Albert Butzel (attorney and former President of Friends of Hudson River Park) to change the momentum in the room. Butzel said he had planned to talk about Westway, but instead wanted to respond to the sentiments expressed by the previous speakers.

First, he discussed the landmark environmental battle, begun in the mid-1960s, when activists fought Con Edison’s effort to build a storage power generator on Storm King Mountain, leading to the first-ever judicial ruling that esthetic impacts could be considered in such projects. “There were parts of the human spirit that responded to nature,” Butzel said of the arguments raised, adding that “People... opposed something which ‘had to happen,’ and when it didn’t happen, the utility adopted the alternatives... proposed from the very beginning.”

“A lot of these cases are NIMBY cases, but they are cases that people feel strongly about, because they do have an interest beyond NIMBY,” he continued. “Who else are going to fight a lot of projects except the people who are most directly affected by them, even though the consequences to the society as a whole are much broader than the so-called NIMBY interests that Henry and Adrian and even Alex called into question?”

Everyone from the real estate industry through civic groups thought Westway “was a grand idea,” while some dissenters thought the “financial scheme to use federal highway funds” should have been revised, with the money instead used for transit. “The idea was our city can’t grow without this,” he said. Now, even supporters wonder how they once backed the project.

The city's dynamic

“I just want to say opposition is not bad per se. It’s a very, very important part of the dynamic of this city and one of the things that’s made us great,” Butzel said. “There is no crosstown expressway, and there is no expressway running through Washington Square Park, because some people were strong enough to stand up and say, ‘I don’t care what the mayor thinks. I don’t care what Robert Moses thinks, but this is not going to happen because it’s going to diminish the city. It’s not just my self interest, it’s because it’s going to be a negative impact on the city.’”

Questions about when and where to oppose and to build, of course, were raised during last year’s discussions of the legacy of Jane Jacobs, when, in retrospect, some of the causes discussed seem like no-brainers.

“If people would stop shouting about negativism and start paying a little more attention in this city to building consensus for projects that are worthy,” he said, “I think we’d see a lot more of them, with a lot less wasted energy.”

Finding the balance

Stern called Butzel’s remarks “very sensible... Al Butzel made the compelling point that dissent from progress is not treason... The trouble is it’s so difficult to know what is right and what is wrong. Some cases are more obvious than others. I’d say Storm King is one of them. Others are more difficult.”

Stern noted that he opposed Westway for nine years, when he was on City Council. He supported it for seven years when he was Parks Commissioner under Mayor Ed Koch. His candid explanation: “I was traded to a new team.”

Upon reflection, Stern said that his “attitude toward Westway is ‘Yes but,’” suggesting that the Hudson River Park that resulted has many flaws and that a “modified, worked out with the community” plan might have resulted in something better, but not a ”superhighway with 60-story towers,” as once envisioned.

The public realm

Attorney and planner Michael White took off from Stern’s comment, pointing to the difficulty in empowering communities when Community Boards don’t have the money to hire planners. “How do you get to ‘yes, but,’?” he asked, to avoid not only NIMBY but NIABY (not in anyone’s backyard). “There are projects like Atlantic Yards that involve an over-concentration or stealing of resources that shouldn’t be built anywhere, and anybody anywhere in New York should oppose them.”

Garvin responded, “It’s very simple. We should stop worrying about other people’s property and start investing in the people’s property. The people’s property are our streets, our parks, our public realm. And we should be discussing where we spend our money on our property. And if we spend our money on our property wisely, then there will be private development that goes on property within the context of the existing zoning.”

Of course, a project like Atlantic Yards, or even Extell’s bid for the Vanderbilt Yard, could not go on within existing zoning--but that points to a need to rezone the railyards and (possibly) environs--a potential that the ESDC improbably thought unlikely.

Garvin continued, “So if you took for example 21st Street in Astoria and you invested in planting trees on it and you invested in putting in a light rail, you would have something positive to offer the community. The community would not be opposed to spending money on having a transit line. They would not be opposed to planting trees. Those are things that would be assets to the community.“

Government: stay out

Garvin then criticized government projects and, apparently, public-private partnerships like those pursued by the ESDC: “And we would stop having this ridiculous argument that we constantly have about the government going to get involved in developing property on its own. I think the government should be not developing real estate. The government should be doing its investing in its infrastructure and its own property. And there is a great deal of it. We do not maintain our streets well. We have collapsed bridges everywhere.”

“And finally this city has begun to do the kind of investment that it did in the 19th century, and that I believe would help deal with a lot of what Al Butzel is talking about," he said. "If we stopped talking about developing Atlantic Yards or developing these things and left private property to the private owners to develop and instead spent our money on the public realm, I think we’d get a lot of work [done].”

That drew significant applause.

(In December 2005, I wrote about how Stern, a former mentor to Bruce Ratner, had recused New York Civic from commenting on Atlantic Yards, since the organization had received support from Ratner. Stern had said then he would personally support the project. I wonder if his position has become more subtle.)

The AY complication

Of course, the $200 million in direct subsidies for Atlantic Yards was initially supposed to be solely for infrastructure, but that infrastructure in part would be directed to support one specific project rather than any development on the site. (The investment in infrastructure was announced after the city and state backed Forest City Ratner's plan, rather than before any plan was solicited.)

And then the city devoted its $100 million to reimburse the developer for land purchases, then added $105 million for infrastructure.

Left unsaid in Garvin's formulation: can a sports facility be built in an urban area without government intervention? Maybe, maybe not.

But if a sports facility were to receive substantial public assistance and be nominally publicly owned, as with the Atlantic Yards arena, shouldn't the city drive a much, much harder bargain than, say, allowing the developer to reap the bounty of naming rights?


  1. I want to mention a nicely succinct formulation I recall Alex Garvin using early in the evening before I asked my question. Paraphrasing what I remember, Garvin said, "We are doing a lot of what is referred to as `transit-oriented development’ and what I think we should be doing instead is providing a lot of `development-oriented transit.’"- Atlantic Yards is conceptualized as a `transit-oriented development.’ I will elaborate on this below.

    The question I asked that evening was about achieving the kind of development that incorporates the benefit of community-oriented, bottom-up planning (which is therefore also more likely to get community support) while not necessarily being smaller in vision or scale than say, Hudson River Park. Too often “big” development plans lack creativity and insight and are imposed from above by people who fail to think beyond the straight-line shoreline that was proposed for Westway or the kind of bland repetitive elements criticized by Jane Jacobs: things that might seem exciting in a helicopter-view model or rendering but lack the natural vitality of real life. I think Henry Stern acknowledged the need to meet in the middle (incorporating more community generated changes) when he suggested that Westway could not be supported without qualification. Obviously, the many years Westway was under consideration the necessary qualifications were never addressed.

    I think that much of what Mr. Garvin said during the evening, which is quoted in this AYR post, is consistent with considering the importance of Garvin’s juxtaposition of `transit-oriented development’ vs.`development-oriented transit’. It is interesting that he apparently thinks that not only would the latter form of inherently infrastructure-oriented development be better but that it would also diminish or avoid community opposition.

    Recapping, recommending city investment to put light rail, bike lanes and trees along 21st Street in Astoria going west to the East River to create a new “public realm,” Garvin predicted tremendous amounts of new housing would be created and the community would NOT be opposed to the investment.- That is `development-oriented transit.’

    Similarly, consider the proposed extension of the #7 subway line to the Hudson Yards area. It is my understanding that this is a development plan that Garvin supports and has contributed his thinking to. It is proposed to be part of the plans to develop the West Side of Manhattan. This is the area of Manhattan just west of Penn Station and the proposed new Moynihan Station. It is projected that the extension of the #7 subway may cost about $2 billion; about 3/4 of this could be funded by tax-increment public bonds. The anticipated use of tax-increment bonds means that the subway line infrastructure improvement, by increasing the value of the neighboring property, would be paying for itself. How? It would be paying for itself by an a general increase in value to all the property in the area. In other words, unlike Atlantic Yards where Ratner is the SINGLE developer walking away with the increased property value, here the benefit and increase in property values would be distributed amongst MANY owners. While Ratner is being excused from paying property taxes in the case of Atlantic Yards, the MANY neighboring owners in the vicinity of the #7 line would NOT be excused from paying property taxes. Rather, the INCREASED taxes neighbors to the #7 line would pay as a result of the INCREASE in value of their property would pay for the bonds funding the subway. (The investment in Ratner’s project is actually blighting and decreasing property values of the surrounding neighborhood and properties.)

    The above is an example of how well `development-oriented transit’ can work. Conversely, Atlantic Yards is `transit-oriented development.’ While there could be sense to building atop a transit hub or confluence of subway lines as in the case of the proposed Atlantic Yards, it doesn’t make as much sense when those subway lines are already overburdened. Just today there is a story in the New York Times about the problems with the #4 line which is expected to serve the Atlantic Yards site. That story echoes what has been written before and the information promulgated by our transit officials to the effect that all the City’s “numbered” lines (the 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, though not the 7) are overburdened. Only the “lettered” lines like the A and the G, etc. still have fairly good capacity for increased ridership and trains. The Atlantic Yards plan for its site puts most of its density in the proximity of the “numbered” lines rather than in proximity to the nearby “lettered” lines. Also, and this can’t be emphasized enough, it makes little sense to put the public investment and subsidy in the pocket of private developer Bruce Ratner rather than increasing such things as the transit infrastructure that can benefit everyone.

    The last section of this post, “The AY complication,” talks about the idea that, to an extent, Atlantic Yards involves funding for infrastructure. It hardly makes sense to give this notion any credence because:

    1. The amount of public subsidy going to Atlantic Yards overall is colossal, $1.3 billion for the arena and at least somewhere between $2.5-3 billion overall. Therefore the $200 million or so going to Atlantic Yards is an infinitesimal fraction in the equation.

    2. As AYR points out, the infrastructure is directed at benefitting just one project and just one developer to whom the public is giving a theoretical monopoly on a no-bid basis.

    3. Money that was supposedly going to infrastructure is being diverted to other uses.

    4. The investment in infrastructure is not being recaptured via taxes on increased property values in the neighborhood.


    I should note that there is a certain interconnectedness that should give Garvin’s comments resonance. The AYR post notes Henry Stern’s early postion on Atlantic Yards and asks whether it might now be modified. In his introduction of Garvin, Stern talked about the multitude of Garvin's students he hired in the Parks Department when he was NYC Commissioner. (He was Commissioner twice.) Atlantic Yards was also once regarded as Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff’s baby (though disowned in the end see: Atlantic Yards As Political Hot Potato
    Garvin worked with Doctoroff and Doctoroff publically adopted Garvin as a sort of mentor, after Doctoroff reportedly saw Garvin’s book in a Barnes & Noble. (See: “A Man with Plans” May 2001, by Mark Alden Branch and “It’s Alex Garvin’s Town; You’ll Never Live In It” by Matthew Schuerman, August 27, 2006


    I think it is worth noting that while Al Butzel can speak knowledgeably about significant community opposition efforts that were successful in the past, he is also currently involved in representing the Greenwich Village community opposing the proposed Rudin/St. Vincent’s Hospital expansion which would shrink the Greenwich Village Historic District by effectively selling off a portion of the district to subsidize St. Vincent’s by specially allowing the Hospital and a developer purchasing from them special permission to build at extra-high density. I have written more about that available at:

    I think we need to be cautious about revisionist history that proposes that megaprojects that were defeated in the past would actually have been better than they would have been. Would Westway have been the equivalent of better Hudson Yards Park? Henry Stern criticized Hudson Yards Park as being a spindle of a park. Would Westway have been the same as the Hudson Yards park only bigger and more of what people love? Lest revisionist history take over, not all of Westway would have been park (or underground highway). Some of Westway would have been residential and some commercial. Mr. Butzle commented that, had time permitted, he had slides available demonstrating how little park would have been produced by Westway.

    The danger of historical revisionism is that we denigrate the value of past community victories and thereby potentially lose sight of and fail to appreciate the value of those future victories it is now important to fight for.


    The accumulating acronyms discussed were fun and most can be found in Wikipedia:

    They are:
    NIMBY: Not In My Back Yard
    NIABY: Not In Anyone's Backyard
    NOTE: Not Over There, Either
    NOPE: Not On Planet Earth,
    BANANA: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything

    As I pointed out when I asked my question, NIABY in contradistinction to BANANA, is the proper term for Atlantic Yards because the Atlantic Yards is a bad project no one would wish upon anyone in any neighborhood. The opposition does not oppose other better projects that could be built over Vanderbilt Yards. It actually promotes them. It does not, defacto, oppose other projects elsewhere, but would be opposed to a project as objectionable as Atlantic Yards, squandering resources like Atlantic Yards no matter where or upon whom such a project might be forced.

    Michael D. D. White
    Noticing New York


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