Saturday, November 08, 2008

Paging Jane Jacobs? Panel takes on where and how to build affordable housing

So, what would Jane Jacobs say (WWJJS)? It’s hard to extrapolate the oracle of 1961 New York to the much-changed situation of 2008, and it’s especially hard to transfer her wisdom to the problem of affordable housing, which was a lesser and different problem in her time.

But Jacobs above all urged people to see for themselves, and that was one underlying message of a panel discussion Wednesday, titled Housing New Yorkers in the 21st Century, sponsored by the Municipal Art Society and underwritten by the Rockefeller Foundation as the First Annual Jane Jacobs Forum. Last year the two organizations collaborated on the Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York exhibition.

(I wrote yesterday about how a city official’s observations on the trade-offs between neighborhood character and density suggested a process much different from that which brought us Atlantic Yards.)

(Note the lengthy comments by Benjamin Hemric below.)

Bleak picture

Moderator Vicki Been, director of the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, set out a bleak picture, citing the a “terrible crisis in getting land,” leading to increasing costs of land, plus skyrocketing construction costs and “a fair amount of community opposition to a variety of proposals.” Beyond that, even before recent credit crunch, various neighborhoods, especially poorer ones, have faced a decreasing availability of credit. Also, various neighborhoods face the ripple effects of the foreclosure crisis. (Here's testimony Been recently made before Congress.)

She noted that recent Furman Center research showed that, of 333 census tracts throughout the city, 220 saw more mortgage foreclosures than new mortgages being originated. Meanwhile, the amount of housing subsidies from the city, state, and federal governments has decreased. (“That is only going to get worse,” Been added, which implies that even a Democratic administration in Washington has other priorities.)

The demand to make homes more environmentally sustainable also raises costs, she said. Further complicating the picture, she concluded, “We’re seeing increasing frustration about the ability of communities to plan for what’s going on in their community.”

Providing affordable housing

Been began with a provocative question: why does New York City have to provide housing for all segments of our workforce, to all who want to live here? Why can’t people live in New Jersey and take the PATH train?

Jerilyn Perine, director, Citizens Housing and Planning Council and a former commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, acknowledged the contradictions in Jacobs’s vision. “Here’s somebody who sort of talks with great love of the diversity of the neighborhoods, yet really dislikes public housing,” she said.

Jacobs invented the idea of community participation but, in the book, supported Columbia’s plan to expand into Morningside Park without mentioning the local community’s criticism. And while Jacobs drew “such a fine grain description of her [Greenwich Village] neighborhood,” she “dismisses the Bronx.”

“So there’s this funny dichotomy, which particularly comes through with housing,” Perine said, noting that Jacobs didn’t look at the macro housing market. “In some ways that epitomizes the conflict we’ve always had,” she said, between planners who work in neighborhoods and people who look at larger trends.

Where to put subsidies?

These days, Perine said, there are plenty of places in New York that are affordable to someone, and it’s a question of where to direct subsidies. Even 20 years ago, she reminded the audience, Mayor Ed Koch used to say that everybody can’t live south of 96th Street.

These days, there are pressure “to put city dollars into places with very high underlying market values.” If Jane Jacobs were here today, Perine said she hoped Jacobs would push officials to clarify “what problem are we solving. Are we trying to make the West Village affordable for somebody who wants a $500 apartment, or are we starting to make Far Rockaway, East New York, Bushwick and Brownsville, and Morrisania places to grow the middle-class? I’d hope it would be that.”

The AY example

Perhaps half of the 450 lowest-income apartments at Atlantic Yards, those aimed to households of one, two, or three people, would rent for around $500. There would be 2250 subsidized units.
City Council Member Bill de Blasio, in an interview last year, acknowledged that, from a purely economic standpoint, affordable housing should be concentrated in neighborhoods where it costs less to build, but argued that there are social costs to forcing the working class farther out, as in Paris.

(He also, oddly enough, claimed that the Community Benefits Agreement would guarantee the affordable housing in the absence of scarce subsidies, not noticing that the housing depends on such subsidies.)

HPD’s take

HPD Deputy Commissioner for Development Holly Leicht said New York has to be maintain diversity, and pointed out that the city must support not only low-income housing but also housing for those of middle and moderate incomes.

(Such “workforce housing” actually would be a majority of the planned Atlantic Yards subsidized housing; the irony is that most members of the low-income group ACORN, which “negotiated” the AY affordable housing agreement, wouldn’t qualify for those units, as those seeking housing discovered at a July 2006 AY affordable housing information session.)

Leicht said Perine brought up a “complicated question” raising “hard trade-offs,” noting that HPD has walked a fine line on it.

Michelle de la Uz, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee (FAC) in Brooklyn, suggested that New York City’s growth depends on immigrant groups, who help fuel “our competitive edge... It’s very clear from a public policy standpoint that you have to have the housing that fuels that diversity.” Still, she acknowledged that it was valid to raise questions “about where you’re going invest those limited public resources.”

No one other than Perine took a clear stand. Later, even Perine hedged a bit, acknowledging that inclusionary housing does create some low-income housing in more expensive areas. Still she pointed to “a whole swath of Central Brooklyn... that really needs a tremendous amount of assistance and investment.”

“So. do you do that one unit in a high-market area or do you do the ten units in the lower-income communities that sort of have endemic housing issues?” she asked rhetorically. “I don’t think there’s a perfect answer.” Such trade-offs are ones that policymakers must “wrestle with every day.”

Unmentioned during the panel discussion is that there’s a lot of de facto affordable housing in less-affordable neighborhoods, thanks to 20somethings putting up room dividers in already small apartments and the creation of rooming houses by immigrants sleeping in shifts. The latter, at least, violates the housing code, raising questions of whether it should be modernized or better enforced.

(A reader reminds me that there's a lot of rent-regulated affordable housing in less-affordable neighborhoods.)

Adding density

Been noted that the city could add housing supply, and affordable housing, by becoming more dense. She noted another potential contradiction with Jacobs, who detailed the fine-grained nature of her neighborhood while also supporting significant density. (Jacobs, it should be mentioned, supported density via a variety of building types, not projects, as was the dominent policy of the time.)

Leicht allowed that “it’s a complicated question,” noting that, in its rezonings, the Department of City Planning (DCP) has generally tried to upzone wide avenues in areas where there’s transit access, and to downzone smaller blocks. Also, DCP has offered a bonus by adding density for affordable housing. (Note that DCP did so for part of Fourth Avenue in Park Slope, but missed the boat in the first phase of the Fourth Avenue rezoning.)

While there has been some success, Leicht acknowledged that large parts of Queens and Staten Island have argued against density. (At a panel discussion last month, both Steven Spinola of the Real Estate Board of New York and community planning advocate Tom Angotti criticized downzonings in Queens neighborhoods with good transit access.)

Leicht went on to discuss how a more transparent process has emerged in which the public gets a sense of the trade-off between affordability and density--a process, I pointed out yesterday, absent from the Atlantic Yards plan.

Later, de la Uz brought up Atlantic Yards as an example of going too far, but exaggerated the numbers: “If it’s built the way it was approved, we’re going to end up with 16 60-story buildings, making it the most dense census tract by two in North America. There’s a point at which things get ridiculous in the conversation.”

While the Atlantic Yards density may be “ridiculous,” the buildings would range from about 20 stories to about 50 stories.

An architect’s take

Architect Mark Ginsberg of Curtis + Ginsberg Architects, offered two more factors to consider. Since 1960, the average dwelling size in this country has doubled in size, though the increase is not as dramatic in New York. Also, the size of average household is much smaller. Given those factors, a typical building houses fewer people, thus adding pressure on density.

While the city’s 1916 zoning rezoning resolution was designed for a buildout of 40 million people, clearly overambitious, the 1961 zoning resolution would only accommodate 12 million people, he said. Even that latter number must be lowered, he said, because of the combination of downzonings and neighborhoods not fully built out. Given that the city could now accommodate perhaps 10 million people, that adds pressure for density, he said. “We’re going to have to look at upzonings, hopefully in ways that don’t destroy a community.”

(Note that the Empire State Development Corporation declared underutilization--less than 60% allowable development rights--a factor in blight, which would condemn large swaths of Brooklyn.)

What about New Jersey?

Been, who noted that President-elect Barack Obama “has shown some inclination to think about cities as metro areas.,” asked what was so sacrosanct about the city’s boundaries. After all, there’s capacity for housing in northern New Jersey cities served by public transportation.

Forward-thinking transportation planners in the New York metro area see an eventual amalgamation of the PATH and New York City Transit systems, leading to a one-fare ride to cities in northern New Jersey, but that’s hardly far off.

Ginsberg said he had no problem with people looking at the region, but that might mean, as with commercial office space, population growth might occur more across the river.

How much community input?

Perine said Jacobs raised core arguments about the role of planning versus community input. “Planning is really about one thing, it’s about the future,” she said. While the community planning advocacy perspective “is important and valuable and should be listened to,” she warned, “There are very few communities that come to City Planning and say, ‘Y’know we’d really like you to figure out how you make more room for the Ecuadorians who are coming, or the South Asian immigrants we believe will be coming in the next five years.’” The audience chuckled at the recognition.

“No one says that,” she continued. “The planners really have to be thinking about the future, so community planning becomes about the future... not about sort of pandering to the idea of communities as little museums, to be preserved in the image of people who are there today, or, even worse, have some sort of nostalgic blowback version of their community that, y'know, I don’t think any community can stand up to... Does that mean we should build 80-story buildings on Barrow Street? no, but there’s something in between.”

Angotti and others would point out that, in the Melrose Commons redevelopment in the Bronx, local residents actually requested increased density.

Perine acknowledged that everybody would like their neighborhood to be contextual, but downzonings that eliminate elevator buildings also eliminate housing accessible to the elderly or the handicapped.

The role of design

Been asked design can be used to make affordable housing more acceptable to the neighbors. Ginsberg noted that there are different ways to get the same density.

de la uz noted that, during controversy over a building the FAC plans for supportive housing, neighbors raised many questions about the people the building would serve, but no one raised concerns about the design. “It was wonderful to take that off the table,” she said.

Leicht said the design of affordable housing has come a long way. She noted that a design competition, cosponsored with AIA, for an HPD site in the South Bronx led to a winning design that was arguably “a little bit less sexy” than the second-place entrant. But “the reality is, that [winner] is going to be built, it’s an incredibly sustainable building.”

Community participation

Been asked how to improve community participation, whether the land use review process needs to be rethought or whether it’s more a matter of tweaking around the edges, as in Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s efforts to professionalize community boards.

de la Uz noted that the Fifth Avenue Committee doesn’t “get a shovel into the ground until we’ve had community advisory meetings and ... charrettes.”

Perine reminded the audience of Jacobs’s key criticism, that planners at that time “didn’t actually look at what was really happening at communities.” Rather than slavishly follow Jacobs’s vision of 1961 New York, “first and foremost, she’s saying, ‘Go and look for yourself.’” (That was the key message of the Jacobs exhibition last year at the Municipal Art Society.)

Current discussion, she warned “are far too Manhattan-centric, too dominated by a white intellectual conversations.” People must pay attention to “the two most dramatic changes”: the influx of immigrants and “the rapid change of household composition.”

de la Uz pointed out that “the City Planning Commission has basically become a zoning commission, not a full planning commission,” but noted that CPC has learned some lessons, and “now there’s much more advance conversation going on.”

That led up to Leicht’s comments, which I wrote about yesterday, about how “ULURP is awfully late to start a conversation about a large project.”

What next?

Been asked panelists about their wish list; what public investments might foster affordable housing. Perine returned to the regional issue. “I would swap Staten Island for Paterson and Newark and Jersey City,” she said, to laughs from the crowd. “I suggested the swap thing to Mayor Bloomberg once when I was housing commissioner, and he said, ‘That’s good, never say that again.’ But I’m not in the administration.”

She also argued for extending the Number 7 train, both westward, as already planned to support the Hudson Yards development, “but also bring a transport system to Eastern Queens. To be honest, I think if you just did that, a lot of things would take care of themselves.”

Leicht pointed to the need to increase the sewer capacity. “We just did a huge rezoning in Jamaica,” she said. “There’s tons of potential in Jamaica for density and growth, but the sewer system is outrageously outdated... If we’re going to be doing a lot rezonings and density, we can’t do it til the infrastructure is in place.”

Peine pointed out that the cities in northern New Jersey already have such infrastructure.

Ginsberg suggested a revision in city regulation, so, for example, somewhat more costly green roofs are counted in lowering a building’s impact on the sewer system.

de la Uz added that brownfields could support increased development, as is happening at the Public Place site on the Gowanus Canal. “There’s this notion that there’s no more land,” she said. “There are thousands of brownfield sites that go undeveloped because of complexity of redevelopment process.” (Part of the Atlantic Yards site is a brownfield, and state subsidies are expected.)

She also suggested efforts to improve public transportation, such as the expansion of Bus Rapid transit suggested by the Communities United for Transportation Equity (COMMUTE) coalition. Increased support for transportation, she noted, could have come out of congestion pricing.

Indeed, left on the table as the conversation ran down was how to pay for housing and other improvements. Surely congestion pricing will return in some form.

Which would be better policy, direct investments in housing or efforts to upgrade transportation in areas, such as Third Avenue in the Bronx or 21st Street in Astoria/LIC, where there’s ample opportunity for development, as planner Alexander Garvin has pointed out? Wouldn’t the latter bring more bang for the buck?

In informal conversations after the panel, the answer I got back was that it’s complicated, and that both were necessary. Housing subsidies, I was told, bring more immediate impact. Still, we should remember that lotteries for government affordable housing bring some winners but also frustrate a lot of people, so there must be efforts to increase the supply.

Times changing

Perine at one point noted that, while planners should be careful not to inhibit change too much, Jacobs was writing when widespread demolition for urban renewal was common.

“It was a much more, let’s say, gruesome reality that she was reacting to,” she said. “We haven’t seen that kind of wholesale urban renewal condemnation and widespread clearance for some time."

3 comments:

  1. Hi, Norman! It was good to see you at this event, especially knowing that you would later provide a very detailed and accurate summary of what was said.

    As I believe I've mentioned before (both here at the Atlantic Yards Report, and elsewhere), it seems to me that there is a great deal of misunderstanding regarding the writings of Jane Jacobs in general (and at these MAS Jacobs panels in particular!!!), and it seemed to me that this was the case at this event also -- although the panelists at this event at least acknowledged that Jacobs was not always in agreement with their own beliefs (which is an improvement over the four other MAS Jane Jacobs panels I attended).

    Eventually I hope (yes, I know I keep saying this) to write a more extended discussion of how I believe many people misunderstand Jacobs. But I hope you won't mind me briefly (I hope!) pointing out just some of the significant errors in this panel discussion.

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    1) Norman wrote: So, what would Jane Jacobs say (WWJJS)? It’s hard to extrapolate the oracle of 1961 New York to the much-changed situation of 2008, and it’s especially hard to transfer her wisdom to the problem of affordable housing, which was a lesser and different problem in her time.

    Benjamin writes: Although I realize you don't mean to be unfair (and that you are also essentially just repeating a comment made by one of the panelists, Jerilyn Perine), I think this statement is, indeed, unfair to Jacobs. a) It makes it sound like she died -- at least intellectually -- in 1961, when in fact, of course, she lived until 2006 (?) and her subsequent books and interviews in the intervening years both directly and indirectly address, among other issues, affordable housing. b) It seems to me, and I believe it seemed to Jacobs, that what she wrote in 1961 has a lot more relevance than some people think.

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    2) Norman wrote: But Jacobs above all urged people to see for themselves, and that was one underlying message of a panel discussion.

    Benjamin writes: This was essentially another comment by Jerilyn Perrine, and again it is, in my opinion, a very wrongheaded one (at least as it was said by Ms. Perrine). At the event, Ms. Perrine said something along the lines of, "Perhaps we have been paying too much attention to the particulars of what Jacobs wrote in "Death and Life . . . " and not enough attention to her admonition in that book that we should look at the world directly for ourselves."

    I say that this comment is very wrongheaded not because I believe people shouldn't be looking at the world for themselves (of course they should!); but if people are going to talk about what Jacobs' WROTE they owe it to Jacobs (or any author, for that matter) to first at least CAREFULLY read what Jacobs actually wrote. And as we have seen at these various events (and others too), to an alarming extent many people who talk about Jacobs are in fact actually talking about what others have said "Jacobs has said" and have not themselves a) actually read any Jane Jacobs at all!; b) read only excerpts from "Death and Life . . . ; c) have read "Death and Life . . . ", but many many years ago; d) have not read any of her subsequent books, most of which are very useful for understanding what Jacobs "really meant" in "Death and Life . . . ").

    And, as a result, when these people do look at the world, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Jacobs -- they are merely confirming their own initial beliefs, whatever they may be -- because they have "no" (or, at least, very little) idea of what Jacobs actually said.

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    3) Norman wrote: Jerilyn Perine, director, Citizens Housing and Planning Council and a former commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, acknowledged the contradictions in Jacobs’s vision. “Here’s somebody who sort of talks with great love of the diversity of the neighborhoods, yet really dislikes public housing,” she said.

    Benjamin writes: Jacobs believed in a diversity of what might be termed functional neighborhoods. Public housing projects are not functional neighborhoods. Where is the supposed contradiction? If someone believes in a diversity of environmentally sustainable techniques and structures and "yet" fights against new buildings that aren't environmentally sustainable, is that a contradiction?

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    4) Norman writes: Jacobs [a] invented the idea of community participation [b] but, in the book, supported Columbia’s plan to expand into Morningside Park without mentioning the local community’s criticism.

    Benjamin writes:

    [a] Jacobs did NOT invent the idea of community participation and I think would be the first person to say so. Plus, it seems to me, that when you look at what Jacobs wrotes, said and did, she did not believe in community participation to the degree that many present day community activists believe she did.

    [b] Jacobs' book (which mentions the gym as an idea) was published in 1961 -- which, in the turbulent 1960s, was a totally different era from the late 1960s when community opposition surfaced to the gym.

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    5) Norman wrote: And while Jacobs drew “such a fine grain description of her [Greenwich Village] neighborhood,” she “dismisses the Bronx.”

    Benjamin writes: Jacobs was interested in scientifically understanding why certain area stagnate and decine while others thrive and grow or spontaneously regenerate after a decline (the "DEATH and LIFE of Great American Cities").

    Thus she looked at and wrote about Greenwich Village (and the North End, and Back of the Yards, etc.) because these were areas that had declined and experience "spontaneous" (unplanned by planners) regeneration.

    If one means by the word "dismiss," deems "unworthy" of the time and trouble to think about, Jacobs certainly does NOT "dismiss" the Bronx. Actually it is quite the opposite. When she mentions the Bronx it is as part of the introduction to a question that is a main part of "Death and Life . . .": why do some city districts work (e.g., generate economic activity, attract investment and people with choice, etc.) and others don't? Why does an area like the Bronx (which is, by the way, approximately the size of Boston or San Francisco, I think) with a population of ONE AND A HALF MILLION, have so feable an economy and so little appeal to people with choice? (If one looks up the "Bronx" in the index, one will see that the specific comment that Ms. Perine refers to is part of the intro to the discussion of why some areas thrive and others don't.)

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    6) Norman writes: “So there’s this funny dichotomy, which particularly comes through with housing,” Perine said, noting that Jacobs didn’t look at the macro housing market. “In some ways that epitomizes the conflict we’ve always had,” she said, between planners who work in neighborhoods and people who look at larger trends.

    Benjamin writes: I think when one looks at "Death and Life . . . " one sees that Jacobs is actually writing quite a bit about the macro housing market: the fate of dreary, outdated "grey" areas (like much of the Bronx, and other places too, that would later suffer widespread abandonment); the impact of various factors, like rising crime, on demand for housing; fthe impact of anti-urban, pro-suburban federal policies; the flight to the suburbs; redlining; the then nascient back to the city / brownstone revival movement; nascient gentrification; etc.

    And, again, Jacobs didn't die in 1961. In her subsequent books, especially those on economics, she also writes about macro housing market. See, for instance, her discussion of housing towards the end of the "Economy of Cities."

    - - - - - -

    7) Norman wrote: If Jane Jacobs were here today, Perine said she hoped Jacobs would push officials to clarify “what problem are we solving. Are we trying to make the West Village affordable for somebody who wants a $500 apartment, or are we starting to make Far Rockaway, East New York, Bushwick and Brownsville, and Morrisania places to grow the middle-class? I’d hope it would be that.”

    Benjamin writes: In a way, I'm surprised that Ms. Perine would say this. I think it is very clear, even in "Death and Life . . . " (let alone her other books) that Jacobs believes that the problem with many urban areas is that they are "deficient" in density and economic activity and would benefit from people and businesses fleeing the high prices of more established popular areas.

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    8) Norman wrote: HPD Deputy Commission for Development Holly Leicht said New York [a] has to maintain diversity, and pointed out that the city [b] must support not only low-income housing but also housing for those of middle and moderate incomes.

    Benjamin writes: Jacobs obviously believed in [a] the importance of diversity. But she was also very skeptical of [b] governement subsidies and government involvement in housing in general. As one can see in "Death and Life . . ." (and in her other books too), she is interested in removing the problems that inhibit private development (e.g., redlining, low-density zoning, etc.) and creating the market conditions that would better encourage investment and re-investment by the private market.

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    9) Norman wrote: Been noted that the city could add housing supply, and affordable housing, by becoming more dense. She noted another potential contradiction with Jacobs, who detailed the fine-grained nature of her neighborhood while also supporting significant density. (Jacobs, it should be mentioned, supported density via a variety of building types, not projects, as was the dominent policy of the time.)

    Benjamin writes: Again, there is no contradiction. Jacobs' neighborhood is both high density and fine grained -- as are other neighborhoods too (e.g., the North End of Boston, etc.).

    I think there are two problems here:

    a) People don't understand (or are inconsistent in their understanding of, or don't agree upon) the meaning of terms like "fine-grained" "high-density" (and also "high rise").

    b) People haven't really looked at the areas that Jacobs has written about. For instance, contrary to what many people seem to think, Greenwich Village is mostly high density and contains numerous high-rise buildings (including high rise warehouses).

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    10) Norman wrote, [Ginsberg said,] “We’re going to have to look at upzonings, hopefully in ways that don’t destroy a community.”

    Benjamin writes: This sentence seems to me to be a prime example of the OPPOSITE of Jane Jacobs' thinking. (While it is true that even Jacobs believed that densities can be too high -- if they snuff out diversity -- this doesn't seem to be the case with the neighborhoods that Ginsberg is talking about.)

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    11) Norman wrote: Been, who noted that President-elect Barack Obama “has shown some inclination to think about cities as METRO AREAS [!!! emphasis mine -- BH],” asked what was so sacrosanct about the city’s boundaries. After all, there’s capacity for housing in northern New Jersey cities served by public transportation.

    Benjamin writes: This is another example of something that the orthodox urban planners (Jacobs' intellectual adversaries) advocate that Jacobs herself was very much AGAINST: regional planning and metropolitanism. She fought this to no avail in Toronto. (By the way, she even thought that the consolidation of the five boroughs into New York City was a mistake -- and Brooklyn would have been better off as its own city.)

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    12) Norman wrote: Forward-thinking transportation planners in the New York metro area see an eventual amalgamation of the PATH and New York City Transit systems, leading to a one-fare ride to cities in northern New Jersey, but that’s hardly far off.

    Benjamin writes: Generally speaking, I believe Jacobs also opposed transit consolidations and monopolies, etc. too. But that doesn't mean that she would have necessarily opposed the extention of the NYC transit system to Jersey, etc. It's the consildation of systems that's not a good idea -- not the extension of a system.

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    13) Norman wrote: [Perine said,] “The planners really have to be thinking about the future, so community planning becomes about the future . . . not about sort of pandering to the idea of communities as little museums, to be preserved in the image of people who are there today, or, even worse, have some sort of nostalgic blowback version of their community that, yknow, I don’t think any community can stand up to . . . Does that mean we should build 80-story buildings on Barrow Street? No, but there’s something in between.”

    Benjamin writes: If one reads "Death and Life . . " carefully (and Jacobs other books too) one sees that, contrary to common perceptions, it is Jacobs who is against pandering and the ideas of communities as little museums -- and in favor of high-densities (which people don't want), high-rises (which people dont' want), mixed-uses (which people dont want), fewer parks and more streets (which people don't want), etc.

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    14) Norman wrote: Perine acknowledged that everybody would like their neighborhood to be contextual, but downzonings that eliminate elevator buildings also eliminate housing accessible to the elderly or the handicapped.

    Benjamin writes: Contrary to common perceptions (especially among orthodox planners), Jacobs was for diversity of building types, including high-rises and decried homogeneity ("contextualism").

    - - - - - - -

    15) Norman wrote: Perine reminded the audience of Jacobs’s key criticism, that planners at that time “didn’t actually look at what was really happening at communities.” Rather than slavishly follow Jacobs’s vision of 1961 New York, “first and foremost, she’s saying, ‘Go and look for yourself.’” (That was the key message of the Jacobs exhibition last year at the Municipal Art Society.)

    Benjamin writes: See comment #2 above.

    - - - - - -

    16) Norman wrote: de la Uz pointed out that “the City Planning Commission has basically become a zoning commission, not a full planning commission,” but noted that CPC has learned some lessons, and “now there’s much more advance conversation going on.”

    Benjamin writes: Jacobs was, of course, against planning (in the sense of urban planners doing "planning") and for a kind of minimal zoning which today we know as performance zoning.


    - - - - -

    17) Norman wrote: Leicht pointed to the need to increase the sewer capacity. “We just did a huge rezoning in Jamaica,” she said. “There’s tons of potential in Jamaica for density and growth, but the sewer system is outrageously outdated... If we’re going to be doing a lot rezonings and density, we can’t do it til the infrastructure is in place.”

    Benajmin writes: Increasing sewer capacity is an excellent idea. But while some seem to think of this as "planning," I think Jacobs herself would be more inclined to call it "problem solving" -- which is a very different thing from "planning."

    - - - - -

    18) Norman wrote: Peine pointd out that the cities in norther New Jersey already have such infrastructure.

    Benjamin writes: Yeah, but this has nothing to do with the Mayor's of New York City's job. I think Jacobs would call this pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking -- "escapism" that does more harm than good. Let's look at our responsibilities and take care of them well.

    - - - --

    19) Norman wrote: Ginsberg suggested a revision in city regulation, so, for example, somewhat more costly green roofs are counted in lowering a building’s impact on the sewer system.

    Benjamin writes: Sounds like an excellent idea that is very much in the Jacobs spirit of devising regulations that are sensible not destructive.

    - - - - -

    20) Norman wrote: She also suggested efforts to improve public transportation, such as [a] the expansion of Bus Rapid transit suggested by the Communities United for Transporation Equity (COMMUTE) coalition. Increased support for transportation, she noted, [b] could have come out of congestion pricing.

    Benjamin writes: I think [a] is in the spirt of Jane Jacobs (although it would be better yet if the City built the bus lanes, etc. and had a variety of private bus companies using them).

    Regarding [b]: My guess is that this is the kind of muddled "feedback" that Jacobs would be leery of.

    - - - - -

    21) Norman wrote: [a] Which would be better policy, direct investments in housing or efforts to upgrade transportation in areas, such as Third Avenue in the Bronx or 21st Street in Astoria/LIC, where there’s ample opportunity for development, as planner Alexander Garvin has pointed out? [b] Wouldn’t the latter bring more bang for the buck?

    Benjamin writes: Given Jacobs' interest in the private maket, I think she would go for [a].

    However, I think she would be skeptical of reason [b] as being government bureacrats trying to be investment bankers.

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    22) Norman wrote: Perine [said,] “It was a much more, let’s say, gruesome reality that she was reacting to,” she said. “We haven’t seen that kind of wholesale urban renewal condemnation and widespread clearance for same time. even a site like Atlantic Yards, one could argue, is just 35 years later. It was a very old urban renewal plan designed at that point for that sort of old Jane Jacobs time.”

    Benjamin writes: While this isn't directly related to this comment, but to a different comment I think I heard that hasn't been mentioned here: I think it should be pointed out that when Jacobs and her neighbors fought to "preserve" their neighborhood against the urban renewal plan for their area (which happened after Jacobs wrote "Death and Life . . ") they were fighting AGAINST lower densities, the wiping out of mixed-income housing, the wiping out of complexity and mixed uses, the creation of more open space, etc. When today's community activists fight development, they are usually (but not always) fighting AGAINST higher densities, a mix of incomes, the introduction of complexity and mixed uses, the filling in of open space, etc.

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    Thanks again Norman for you great summary, and thanks for letting me comment. (I have to rush off -- they're closing the library now!!!)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Benjamin Hemric points out, most fundamentally, that it's unwise to look just at Jacobs' first book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," given that she continued writing and speaking for four decades more. (Yes, she died in 2006.) He's right, but it is true that remains the largest influence.

    The message that people should see for themselves was a theme of the Municipal Art Society exhibition on Jacobs last year. Without going back to "Death and Life" I can't offer a direct quote, but an underlying theme of the book is that the planners and decisionmakers of the day didn't respect or understand the wisdom of ordinary people. So, while I have no quarrel with many of his observations, I think he goes a bit far in #2.

    I take the point that Jacobs didn't invent community participation; rather, she was central to a new wave of prominent participation.

    As for the Bronx, in Chapter 7, The Generators of Diversity, Jacobs devotes a page (237 in my Modern Library edition) to the borough, and while it is an introduction to a larger point, it is rather dismissive: "In so simple a matter of city amenity and diversity as interesting restaurants, the 1,500,000 people in the Bronx cannot produce." Her source is Kate Simon's guidebook "New York Places and Pleasures." I have no stake in this debate, but I wonder whether the problem was that of the Bronx, or that of Simon. Latter-day adventuresome reviewers like Robert Sietsema surely discovered NYC's immigrant neighborhood.

    As for the question of consolidation of regional transit, maybe Jacobs would still be against it, but if it's Jacobsian to look at thinks fresh, I like to think she'd favor it.

    I think the discussion at several points strayed from what Jacobs might say, so I don't think Perine was citing Jacobs in arguing against pandering to communities, or was it suggested that such communities were invoking Jacobs.

    The concept of "performance zoning" came up in my coverage of another recent urban planning discussion. See:
    http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2008/11/overdevelopment-zoning-and-public-realm.html

    Re #21, I implied but left out a word: [a] Which would be better policy, direct [PUBLIC] investments in housing or efforts to upgrade transportation in areas, such as Third Avenue in the Bronx or 21st Street in Astoria/LIC, where there’s ample opportunity for development, as planner Alexander Garvin has pointed out? [b] Wouldn’t the latter bring more bang for the buck?

    Benjamin writes: Given Jacobs' interest in the private maket, I think she would go for [a].

    Had the word PUBLIC been more clear, I think Benjamin would argue for [b].

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  3. Thanks, Norman, for your thoughtful comments -- and for the opportunity to address the important issues that you raise.

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    I) Norman wrote: Benjamin Hemric points out, most fundamentally, that it's unwise to look just at Jacobs' first book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," given that she continued writing and speaking for four decades more. (Yes, she died in 2006.) He's right, but it is true that [that] remains the largest influence.

    Benjamin writes: I’d like to further address this point and some others that are related but maybe somewhat different:

    a) I think one of the problems here is that many people seem to be assume that Jacobs wrote ONE book on cities and that her other six books are almost entirely unrelated to what she wrote in her first book. (The text at the MAS exhibit seemed to me to be saying this.) If such were indeed the case, then it would “almost” be alright to talk only about “Death and Life . . .” when discussing Jacobs and cities. However, I believe Jacobs felt – and I believe she was right in feeling – that her six subsequent books (even, to various extents, the four that don’t have “cities” in the title) are essentially an extension, application AND FURTHER EXPLICATION of what she wrote in “Death and Life . . .” I submit that most readers will not actually even know what Jane Jacobs “really” meant in “Death and Life . . . “ unless they read certain relevant portions of her subsequent books.

    Why is this? It seems to me that in a single book – especially one, like “Death and Life . . .” that sets out a radically different course from what has existed previously -– an author can address just so many topics in just so much detail without appearing to beat the topic to death and losing the audience. “Death and Life . . . ” is already a very long book for its type, but even so there are still inevitably a lot of loose ends. Plus, Jacobs had only just begin to tackle the topic, so there were a lot of implications and further loose ends for her to think about further and to address later –- which she eventually did in her subsequent books. In other words, when “Death and Life . . . ” was first published even Jane Jacobs, to a certain extent, did not fully understand what she “really” meant when she wrote it. (And I believe she has said something along these lines in one of her interviews.)

    b) When people talk about Jane Jacobs they usually do not qualify (or, so it seems, oftentimes don’t seem to even know) that they are talking about only the first of her seven books (all of which deal with cities to various degrees, even the four that don’t have “cities” in the title). So the impression is given that what they are talking about in “Death and Life . . . ” is the SUM TOTAL of Jane Jacobs’s thoughts about cities – that, “THIS IS IT” – and that what they are talking about is not JUST the ideas about cities that are contained in her very first book (albeit the one that is most famous).

    It’s as though, for instance, one were talking about -- and judging the merit of -- the work of Robert Moses as a public official, but talked as though the only thing he had ever done was Jones Beach. If one wants to talk about Jones Beach, fine, but it is highly misleading to talk about Jones Beach as though it is the sum total of Robert Moses’ work as a public official (e.g., leaving out, in other words, his NYC parks, his bridges, his Title I urban renewal projects, the Cross-Bronx expressway, etc., etc.). Jones Beach is Jones Beach; it is not the sum total of “Robert Moses” effect on New York City.

    Similarly, “Death and Life . . . “ is only one of Jacobs’ books, and no matter how famous it is compared to her other books, it is not the sum total of the thought of “Jane Jacobs.” It is not even the sum total of her thought about cities (or housing, etc.).

    c) When “Death and Life . . .” first came out, critics raised a number of valid questions, and in her subsequent books Jacobs tried to address these questions. Many of the questions now being raised by modern day readers seem to be the very same questions that were raised by critics originally, when the book was first published. Therefore it seems unfair (and weird!) to me that some of these modern day critics make such criticisms without, at the very least, acknowledging that Jacobs wrote a number of subsequent books and that such books, if one were to read them, might address the criticism they have.

    Perhaps one of the most shocking examples of such misguided criticisms are the comments by the late Joel Schwartz in the Robert Moses exhibit “catalog,” where Schwartz says, more or less, that Jacobs’ thoughts on cities is essentially deficient because she is interested only in city aesthetics, not in city economics!!! First of all, “Death and Life . . .” itself contains quite a bit of economics. But even if it contained none, Jacobs subsequently wrote a number of books about economics that both back up and extend her work in “Death and Life . . . ”; so how can one reasonably say about Jane Jacobs that her thought system about cities is deficient because it is oblivious of economics?!

    What is especially weird – shocking – is that Schwartz was a very dedicated academic (Marxist) who apparently slogged through piles and piles of minutes, correspondence, etc. of various obscure organizations in order to write his book, “The New York Approach” (which apparently served as the basis for his draft comments in the Moses catalog), and yet somehow he wasn’t even curious enough to do a quick search of Jacobs in any college library card catalog to see that she has two books that deal directly with urban economics (and that even a Nobel prize winning economist has offered some praise for them, I believe!

    d) Plus it seemed to me that in her comments Ms. Perine was lamenting the “fact” that Jacobs stopped talking about housing issues after she wrote “Death and Life . . . ” and was further saying that “wouldn’t it have been nice” if Jacobs had gone back to these topics years later. So my point here is that Jacobs did NOT stop writing (or talking) about housing, and if someone hadn’t personally had the time to search out and read what Jacobs had written or said on the topic in the intervening 45 years, one should at least be acknowledging the possibility that Jacobs may have nevertheless further addressed the topic in her subsequent books and interviews -- after all, she didn’t die in 1961.


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    II) Norman wrote: The message that people should see for themselves was a theme of the Municipal Art Society exhibition on Jacobs last year. Without going back to "Death and Life" I can't offer a direct quote, but an underlying theme of the book is that the planners and decision makers of the day didn't respect or understand the wisdom of ordinary people. So, while I have no quarrel with many of his observations, I think [Benjamin] goes a bit far in #2.

    Benjamin writes: I agree that somewhere in “Death and Life . . .,” Jacobs says something about decision makers not understanding the wisdom of ordinary people. Without looking up the specific references, I think what Jacobs was saying was that decision makers are often blinded to certain things by their ideological “ivory tower” filters (their professional training), and that SOMETIMES ordinary people, who live in the real world, have not been blinded –- AT LEAST TO THE SAME EXTENT.

    But that doesn’t mean that ordinary people don’t have their own dysfunctional filters too. If ordinary people didn’t have their own dysfunctional filters (oftentimes given to them by “the experts” via Sunday supplements, MAS-type events, etc.) why should someone like Jane Jacobs even bother to write a book in the first place (where she tries to counter the everyday mistaken “wisdom” OF PLAIN ORDINARY PEOPLE: e.g., high densities are bad, parks are automatically good, that mixed uses are automatically bad, etc.).

    In “Death and Life . . .” (and her other books too), Jacobs has put together a book and has forwarded a set of ideas, and it seems to me that what she is asking people to do is first to read and consider the ideas that she is presenting in her book and THEN evaluate and test them against the real world. It would be nonsensical, however, for her (or any author) to write a book and then tell people to ignore it and just look at the world for themselves, as though they had never read, or more importantly, UNDERSTOOD her book.

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    III) Norman wrote: As for the Bronx, in Chapter 7, “The Generators of Diversity,” Jacobs devotes a page (237 in my Modern Library edition) [in my Modern Library edition it is page 195 – BH] to the borough, and while it is an introduction to a larger point, [A] it is rather dismissive: "In so simple a matter of city amenity and diversity as interesting restaurants, the 1,500,000 people in the Bronx cannot produce." [B] Her source is Kate Simon's guidebook "New York Places and Pleasures." I have no stake in this debate, but I wonder whether the problem was that of the Bronx, or that of Simon. Latter-day adventuresome reviewers like Robert Sietsema surely discovered NYC's immigrant neighborhood.

    Benjamin writes: Regarding [A], what is meant by the word “dismissive” in this context?

    The point of the chapter and a major point of the book is that the great, unrecognized killer of cities is “The Great Blight of Dullness” (Chapter 7, page 188), which oftentimes sets a downward spiral in motion BEFORE an area becomes poor, unsafe, etc. Jacobs is saying that “dying” urban areas suffer an exodus of “people with choice” and a failure to attract reinvestment (by both businesses and non-poor residents), not only because of racial prejudice, crime, etc., but because they have difficulty generating and sustaining economic activity, and an indicator of this is that they are oppressively dull. One indicator of the Great Blight of Dullness (i.e., “the canary in the coal mine”) is a lack of good restaurants. Jacobs is saying – and I believe she is right on target – that this isn’t just her personal like or dislike but the assessment of everyday people who are the ones who ultimately choose to leave an area or choose not to move or open a business there in the first place.

    Furthermore, Jacobs is interested not just in analyzing the “Great Blight of Dullness” but in figuring out how to combat it (e.g., high-densities [where densities are too low], mixed uses and building types, small blocks, etc.) so that the areas that suffer from it can flourish economically and attract reinvestment and people “with choice.”

    Here are some relevant quotes from “Chapter 7, the Generators of Diversity”

    “How can cities generate enough mixture among uses – enough diversity – throughout enough of their territories, to sustain their own civilization?” (pg. 188)

    “It is all very well to castigate the Great Blight of Dullness and to understand why it is destructive to city life, but in itself this does not get us far . . . . My friend [in Baltimore]. . . Mrs. Kotritsky, is quite right when she reasons that it needs some commerce for its users’ convenience . . . But having said this, then what? The missing diversity, convenience, interest and vitality do not spring forth because the area needs their benefits. ANYBODY WHO STARTED A RETAIL ENTERPRISE HERE, FOR EXAMPLE, WOULD BE STUPID [emphasis mine – BH]. He could not make a living. (pg. 189)

    Although it is hard to believe, while looking at dull gray areas . . . the fact is that big cities ARE natural generators of diversity and prolific incubators of new enterprises and ideas of all kinds.

    The same physical and economic conditions that generate diverse commerce are intimately related to the production, or the presence, of other kinds of city variety. (pg. 193)

    On the one hand, for example, people who live and work in Boston’s North End, or New York’s Upper East Side or San Francisco’s North Beach-Telegraph Hill, are able to use and enjoy very considerable amounts of diversity and vitality. Their visitors help immensely, But the visitors did not create the foundations of diversity in areas like these . . . The visitors sniff out where something vigorous exists already, and come to share it, thereby further supporting it. (pg. 194)

    At the other extreme, huge city settlements of people exist without their presence generating anything much except stagnation and, ultimately, a fatal discontent with the place . . . something is wrong with their districts; something is lacking to CATALYZE [emphasis mine – BH] a district population’s ability to interact economically and help form effective pools of use. (pg. 194)

    Apparently, there is no limit to the numbers of people in a city whose potentiality as city populations can thus be wasted. Consider, for instance, the Bronx, a borough of New York containing some one and a half million people. The Bronx is woefully short of urban vitality, diversity and magnetism. It has its loyal residents, to be sure, mostly attached to little bloomings of street life here and there in “the old neighborhood,” BUT NOT NEARLY ENOUGH OF THEM [emphasis mine – BH]. (pg. 195)

    In so simple a matter of city amenity and diversity as interesting restaurants, the 1,500,000 people in the Bronx cannot produce . . . . Well that is the Bronx, and it is too bad it is so; too bad for the people who live there now, too bad for the people who are going to inherit it in [the] future out of their lack of economic choice, and too bad for the city as a whole. (pg. 195)

    Is the above being dismissive – or analytic?

    Saying that Jacobs is being dismissive is like saying that an orthopedist who sees a 5’ 2,” 250 pound woman who suffers from knee problems is being dismissive when his diagnosis contains the word “obese.” Such a statement is, at heart, a medical judgment – not a snooty, dismissive aesthetic one.

    So in my opinion, not only is this comment not “dismissive,” it is a highly perceptive one that is quite necessary to the overall point of the book -- and, by the way, given the fact that it was written in 1961, when most people by far didn’t see what would eventually happen to the Bronx, it was also amazingly prescient.

    Regarding Norman’s statement [B]. I’ve been wondering the same thing myself (i.e., about Kate Simon’s abilities) and have been trying to get a hold of the original edition of “New York Places and Pleasures” to take a closer look at what she actually wrote and its context in her book. (So far, I’ve only been able to find later editions.)

    A few things to consider however:

    i) Kate Simon grew up in the Bronx and has even written a memoir about it, “Bronx Primitive” (which I haven’t read). So I doubt that she is a stranger to the neighborhood she was writing about.

    ii) Kate Simon’s mission in her guidebooks, so it seems to me, was indeed to discover hidden, underappreciated treasures. So it would be strange for her to miss out on such hidden treasures, especially in her one-time home borough. (But then again, maybe this was too much to ask of any one author in the pre-Zagat, pre-Chowhound age?)

    iii) I’ve been wondering especially what the restaurants in Belmont, the Bronx’s “Little Italy,” which is the neighborhood directly west of the Zoo, was like then? In more recent years it’s been something of a destination for Italian restaurants. But, then again, the South Village (a/k/a SoHo), which in the post gentrification era has plenty of restaurants (some of them very highly rated), had virtually none in the pre-gentrification late-1960s. Most eateries were plain diners, and lots of the area’s storefronts were empty, used for storage or used for apartments. Also the seemingly long-time traditional street fair of St. Anthony’s (that is no longer) was only begun in the mid-1950s or so? So, just because a place has restaurants (or street fairs) later, doesn’t mean it had restaurants (or street fairs) then.

    iv) Also, I think people would be surprised at how bad Italian eateries, food stores, etc. can be even in Italian neighborhoods. It’s one thing for “mama” to be a great cook at home for her family, and another thing for “mama” or “papa” to run a restaurant (e.g., dealing with suppliers, dealing with surges of customers, hiring dependable help, etc.). I’ve personally had some surprisingly bad Italian food in Italian neighborhoods (e.g., Bensonhurst, the South Village). And even my old-time Italian neighbors warned me against patronizing a particular butcher shop in the neighborhood that seemed filthy to me the one time I went in there. Given that nobody I spoke to ever had a good word for it, I wonder how it ever survived?

    v) Growing up in the outer boroughs, including the South Bronx, it’s not hard to imagine a dearth of “recommendable” eateries in the outer boroughs -– especially in the 1950s.

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    IV) Norman writes: As for the question of consolidation of regional transit, maybe Jacobs would still be against it, but if it's Jacobsian to look at thinks fresh, I like to think she'd favor it.

    Benjamin writes: In my opinion, it isn’t Jacobsian to simply look at things “fresh”; it’s Jacobsian to look at things scientifically (rationally and systematically) and without blindly accepting the conventional wisdom. In this case, it is “consolidation” that was, and still is, the conventional wisdom, and it’s Jacobs’ looking at things fresh that is challenging this conventional wisdom. Of course, Jacobs doesn’t expect you to just take her word for it. She lays out the evidence and the reasoning on this issue (especially from “The Economy of Cities” onward) and asks that you compare it for yourself with reality.

    By the way, it seems to me that being against consolidations is pretty much at the core of Jacobs’ thought – as consolidating various units into one unit is pretty much the opposite of diversity. Many software and computer hardware suppliers are better than one consolidated monopoly (e.g., I.B.M.); many phone companies and suppliers are better than one phone company (A.T. & T.) and one supplier (Western Electric?). Many independent bus companies are better than one large and unwieldy monopoly; many different public transportation systems are better than one enormous and unwieldy consolidated public transportation system; etc. “Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.” Redundancy and diversity equals resiliency. Etc.

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    Of course, I don’t expect people to just take my word for it that this is what Jacobs is saying and “really meant.” Read her works for yourself and compare for yourself.

    Thanks again Norman, for the opportunity to address these issues.

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