Friday, April 17, 2009

Doctoroff reflects on PlaNYC's virtues; contrasts with AY evident

As the second anniversary of the debut of PlaNYC 2030 approaches, former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff Wednesday reflected on "one of the Bloomberg administration's proudest legacies." The event, at the Museum of the City of New York, was the first public appearance in which Doctoroff addressed the issue since he left government.

While a framework plan like PlaNYC is not the same as a development project like AY, notably, many of the principles behind the former--an emphasis on consultation and achievable goals, realistically presented--seem counter to the city's embrace of Atlantic Yards.

Indeed, two years ago I described AY as the elephant in the room regarding housing policy in PlaNYC.

Unlike Abu Dhabi

Hilary Ballon, University Professor and Associate Vice Chancellor for NYU Abu Dhabi, and a leader in Robert Moses revisionism, opened the program, calling it "a golden moment for city planning" in New York and beyond. She described planning in both Paris and Abu Dhabi, home to an astonishing remaking of the city-state.

The latter prompted a quip from Doctoroff when he took the dais. "It was very interesting to see the plans for Abu Dhabi," he observed. "I'm sure if we had miles and miles of sand and nothing else, it certainly would've made life a lot easier."

Vision and funding

Doctoroff discussed five organizing principles behind the plan: aspirational, ambitious, achievable, accessible, and accountable.

Aspirational? "A vision for the kind of city we wanted to become, and bequeath that to the next generation. We learned from our city's past, and there are many many examples of this, that a haphazard approach to solving problems does not work. There needs to be a vision."

No such vision applied to the Atlantic Yards plan, which was proposed by a developer for (in part) a site the city had yet to consider marketing.

Doctoroff contrasted PlaNYC with a 1969 plan that never got off the ground: "We vowed not to make a single proposal that we couldn't identify the source of funds for or actually implement. This was to be a living plan that would begin implementation right after it was announced."

No such source of funds for the Atlantic Yards affordable housing was targeted when the project was announced. It was simply assumed that the money would be there, even though no proof was offered that there'd be enough to meet the ten-year timetable.

Outreach

Doctoroff described the genesis of what he called an "unprecedented" outreach effort: "We believe that, particularly because we were focusing on issues that people weren't feeling as intensively today as they would in the future, that we really had to engage in a level of public outreach beyond anything we had ever attempted to do before. In fact, when we started this, we actually learned a few things from our prior experiences. We learned that ideas were not enough. With the [West Side] stadium effort, for example, I learned that maybe a little humility was not the end of the world. With PlaNYC, this was not born as a full-fledged plan. We had a concept. But in order for the entire city to embrace it, the public needed to feel like it had a stake in it, that it was engaged. That if you wanted them to buy in, you had to ask them first."

Atlantic Yards, of course, was delivered as a take-it-or-leave-it full-fledged plan, to be changed, perhaps, by the developer ("we control the pace") after approval.

Successes, and one big failure

PlaNYC's successes are considerable: 200,000 new trees in the ground; more than 15% of the taxi fleet clean energy; 79 more playgrounds that were once schoolyards; and $100 million a year to increase energy efficiency of government buildings.

Doctoroff, who cited hundreds of miles of bike lanes and the beginning of Bus Rapid Transit, called "the biggest achievement"' a 2.5% reduction in greenhouse gases.

As the Real Deal offered a brief summary: 93 percent of PlaNYC's initiatives are underway, but the rejection of the mayor's congestion pricing plan was a "horrible tragedy."

We're still feeling the ripples from that one.

Getting things done

In the Q&A, Ballon reflected that Moses didn't consider himself a planner, but rather someone who "got things done." She asked Doctoroff--who she called "the prime author of a magnificent plan"--if planning had changed and crossed this divide.

"I'm not sure there was ever a true divide between planners and people who got things done. I would probably describe successful planners as planners who got things done," Doctoroff responded. "I will say though, that one of the absolute bedrock conditions we established for ourselves was that pretty pictures, beautiful plans that had no chance of actually happening were a waste of our time and everyone else's time... people can tell you about the mayor's maniacal focus on actually being able to say how we're going to get things done, on what timetable, how much they're going to cost, where the money was going to come from..."

Are there not the "pretty pictures" of Frank Gehry buildings and arena rooftop open space? Do we know the cost and timetable of AY? Not yet.

And who's going to pay for it if it ever gets off the ground? We know developer Forest City Ratner is still pursuing indirect subsidies.

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