Thursday, July 15, 2010

Doctoroff posits justification for Atlantic Yards: Downtown Brooklyn “needed more of a center” (but there was no plan until FCR stepped forward)

Updated July 19 with link to video and additional verbatim comments. The AY discussion comes about two-thirds of the way through.

Former Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Dan Doctoroff has to be feeling pretty good. He didn't bring the Olympics to New York, and that smarts, and he couldn't get the West Side Stadium passed.

But he got most of the Bloomberg administration's ambitious land use agenda passed during his six-year tenure, which ended in 2007.

Now, in his genial, confident way, Doctoroff can look back and contend, as he has before, that he managed to thread the needle between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, to get projects passed with sufficient public input and without much displacement, to make omelets (in Moses's famous formulation) but without breaking eggs.

And if he's not challenged--as he was back in 2007 by Majora Carter, then of Sustainable South Bronx--he just might get away with it. Doctoroff had said, as he's said since, that he and the administration had gotten better at listening.

Carter said they hadn't done enough, that they had to "really, really listen." She added, "The interesting thing about listening is you have to do it openly and not have a predetermined idea set.”

And Doctoroff might get away with claiming, as he did last week, that Atlantic Yards was primarily a product of city guidance, rather than a project presented by a developer with good connections.

A Conversation on New York

On July 8, Doctoroff was interviewed by New Yorker architectural critic Paul Goldberger (below left) as part of the Architectural League’s Conversations on New York, held at Cooper Union.

(Here's a good summary from Urban Omnibus--except for the AY mention--and here's my coverage of the first Conversation, with urban planner and Doctoroff aide Alex Garvin. Here's the video.)

(Photo from Urban Omnibus; the photos below are screenshots from the video.)

Goldberger was a thoughtful interviewer, but not a very tough one--it was a Conversation, after all. He did probe Doctoroff a bit on Atlantic Yards but didn't challenge Doctoroff's revisionism.

The Atlantic Yards dialogue emerged after the Jacobs/Moses discussion.

Jacobs vs. Moses

Goldberger, pointing to recent exhibitions and books regarding Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, asked if “what we might call the Jane Jacobs/Robert Moses dialectic” was “an overly simplistic either/or way of looking at planning the city, or is it in fact a real continuum--if so, where do you see yourself?”

“I think it's a reasonably accurate description of the choices that may have been available at the time,” responded Doctoroff, drawing out the word "reasonably" in a most reasonable manner.

He may look a bit like Albert Brooks (as described here) but radiates a wry self-possession, as if smarts and business success have taught him to diminish his ego--at least in public--as compared to the more mercurial Bloomberg, his billionaire boss.

“I don't think it is true any more, and I certainly think that the way we went about things, which was by no means perfect but we learned a lot along the way, is evidence that you can have it both ways," Doctoroff continued. "We've done 100 rezonings, we are in the process of building something like 2400 acres of parkland, we created three new stadiums, or arenas, we have rezoned... 24 million square feet of office space in the city, for something like 100,000 new residences, the rezoning, and along the way, I think we displaced something like 400 homes. So the notion that you have to in effect destroy in order to build the city is false. I think we've proved that is not the case. What you have to do is pick your spots very carefully. By focusing on areas that we viewed as extremely high potential areas, that were well served by transportation, that could accommodate a lot of housing, but where essentially there was very little left, we could, in a sense, to the extent possible, pretty much have it all. It wasn't just those areas we focused on... You look at Manhattanville, in Harlem, people have their own view on eminent domain, I certainly respect that, at the end of the day, Columbia will be able to expand, and literally, I think 32 residents would be displaced.”

(Actually, it would be direct displacement of 135 housing units and 298 residents by 2030, not a significant adverse impact, according to the Final Environmental Impact Statement.)

"So you just have to be very cognizant of the fact that you have to pick your spots," Doctoroff said.

“Your point is to say that boldness of vision and community consensus are not necessarily mutually exclusive,” Goldberger suggested.

“I don't think so. That's not to say that everyone's going to agree with everything you do,” Doctoroff said. “But I think we got a lot better along the way at listening to communities, adjusting the plans, in fact I made a statement, shortly after I left office, that I’m a huge believer in the land review process in the city, that it's actually a really appropriate balance in the city... I wouldn't change it at all, actually. Every single plan we did that went through ULURP actually benefited from that input. I give [City Planning Commission Chair] Amanda Burden a ton of credit for really listening effectively, We generally stuck to our guns in terms of the core principles of what we were trying to achieve... but modified the plans in material ways after listening to what communities said. So I really think we can draw that right balance in being able to think big and at the same time respect what the community wants.”

Of course Carter, speaking at a 2/1/07 symposium on Moses, gave the Bloomberg administration very mixed reviews, praising its work on sustainability and solid waste management, but saying "those are exceptions and not the rule when it comes to big trophy projects." When people protest, she said, they're told they "don't understand," and administrators "know what's in the best interest of the city."

Atlantic Yards

Indeed, that's how Doctoroff sounded last week.

“Now, there are some cases are some places where things are bigger than the community itself, only the community, so as a result the weight of the opinion of the community shifts somewhat," he continued.

“Would you say Atlantic Yards is such case?” Goldberger asked, diplomatically leading the discussion.

Doctoroff paused to get his bearings. (The video should be available on Urban Omnibus next week.)

“I think if you look at the su--Look.We had a view about Downtown Brooklyn, which was that we needed to have an alternative to New Jersey,” Doctoroff replied, evading the question a bit. “If you look at what happened in the 1990s, and the amount of office space New York lost to New Jersey, in large part because we did not have a modestly priced office market. The obvious alternative for New York was Downtown Brooklyn…”

That’s true, and that’s why the city rezoned Downtown Brooklyn. That rezoning that did not include Atlantic Yards and it turned out to have missed the market, given that it became far more lucrative for developers to build condos (and without any reciprocal obligation to build affordable housing).

“But Downtown Brooklyn lacked a series of amenities,” Doctoroff continued. “It lacked parkland. That was, to some extent, the genesis, the impetus for moving forward with Brooklyn Bridge Park. It lacked housing downtown. We did a huge rezoning."

Actually, the rezoning was driven primarily by the perceived demand for office space, as stated by the Department of City Planning: The proposed zoning changes, as revised on April 29, 2004, are designed to encourage new office development and academic expansion space within the commercial core and, in the surrounding areas, new residential development with attractive ground-floor retail.

"It lacked retail, it lacked hotels--you're now seeing as a result of this rezoning, hotels--it also lacked zoned office space. There had not been a lot of development of office space in Downtown Brooklyn, I don't think we had it ready... There will be, the next time the market picks up. And we thought it also actually needed more of a center to it, more of a draw, to make it actually more appealing, and that was the reason for Atlantic Yards. And therefore Atlantic Yards and Downtown Brooklyn in general had a purpose for the city, from a strategic perspective, that was much bigger than the immediate community. That's not to say you don't take their concerns into account. I said publicly in retrospect, rather than going through state process [for Atlantic Yards], we probably should have gone through ULURP. I think probably at end of day it wouldn’t have been different, but plans might have been modestly different. But there are situations where the imperatives for the city from the strategic perspective demand that you have sort of a broader audience that you're appealing to than just the local community.”"

"That's in fact the whole principle of citywide planning," Goldberger followed up.

If only there had been such planning.

Doctoroff’s right that the city would’ve rolled over Council Member Letitia James, but she and the local Community Boards would’ve been heard.

But let's check some facts. Atlantic Yards wasn’t designed as a draw to make Downtown Brooklyn more appealing, since Atlantic Yards doesn’t even fit on the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership’s map–it’s off to the southeast, with the site in Prospect Heights. (Click to enlarge)

Rather than act proactively, the city acceded to Forest City Ratner’s plan.

“We didn’t decide to take a look at the yards,” said Winston Von Engel, Deputy Director of the Brooklyn office of the Department of City Planning, in March 2006. “They belong to the Long Island Rail Road. They use them heavily. They’re critical to their operations. You do things in a step-by-step process. We concentrated on the Downtown Brooklyn development plan for Downtown Brooklyn. Forest City Ratner owns property across the way. And they saw the yards, and looked at those. We had not been considering the yards directly.”

Or consider that the proactive posture that characterized Doctoroff’s work doesn't apply to AY. Andrew Alper, then president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, testified at the 5/4/04 City Council hearing that “they came to us, we did not come to them. And it is not really up to us then to go out and try to find a better deal.”

Opening up

But that all came later in the event. “Your tenure was notable for an extraordinary degree of focus on the physical city,” Goldberger said, suggesting “that seems less the case today.”

“I think the time I was there coincided with a particular moment in New York City history,” Doctoroff said, noting that the Bloomberg administration took office three and a half months after 9/11. “We came into office... with an extraordinary sense... we had to rebuild the city and make it greater than before,” he said.

“What accelerated that is we actually came into office with an agenda,” Doctoroff said, citing the Olympic plan developed by Alex Garvin that would “shin[e] a spotlight on areas of the city... that fundamentally had suffered from a transition from an industrial economy to a post-industrial economy.

Those included the far West Side of Manhattan, the Brooklyn waterfront, Coney Island, the Queens waterfront, Flushing, South Bronx, Harlem. “We were ready to kind of jump in quickly and take advantage of the window 9/11 actually created,” Doctoroff said.

“When Mayor Bloomberg and I came into office, we had a very different view of what you should do in a downturn,” Doctoroff recalled. “You had to actually plan and invest counter-cyclically, that you couldn't wait until things started to recover to begin putting plans into place... so you always missed the cycle... we were committed to being very aggressive in that downturn.”

So that means “there aren't those same huge areas that can be focused on, for the next cycle.”

The Olympics

Goldberger mused that, given so much of the city's broader initiatives were outgrowths of the 2012 plan, and the difficulty London has faced, maybe we’re better off without the Olympics.

Doctoroff demurred: “I think it was a real sad thing for the city, not because we would've gotten a lot more done... but because I see New York in an increasingly competitive global race among leading cities of the world... I always viewed the Olympics as an opportunity not to showcase New York, but to remind the world what New York means to the world... that it is the one place on earth where literally the world can come together; it is the world's second home.”

That Olympics period, “a seven-year reminder of that, if marketed correctly, could be extraordinarily valuable to New York.”

Center versus X

Goldberger noted that London’s plan “is totally concentrated” in contrast to the New York plan.

“I have to give Alex [Garvin] a lot of credit for this,” Doctoroff said. “We started off from the conceptual point that we wanted to address a whole series of issues at once... the trick was figuring out a way to do that, and still host a very compelling Olympics...through a lot of trial and error, we looked at 475 separate sites.”

That ultimately led to the Olympic X design, with every venue across the boroughs accessible by water or rail.

Goldberger praised “the very idea of using the [Olympic] village [at Queens West] as a centerpiece as opposed to the bird's nest stadium [in Beijing].”

Doctoroff allowed that “the other key pole” was the stadium on Manhattan’s West Side, “but it was true, the Olympic village was viewed as the center.” He said “it was designed to have 5000 units of affordable housing” and he’s proud that plans are going forward on that site. (I’d note that not all the housing will be subsidized.)

The stadium

Goldberger, referring to the stadium, said “what we might call the normal constituency for the Bloomberg administration’s planning initiatives did not rally behind it.”

“I don't think so,” said Doctoroff, somehow omitting mention of the influential, and very mainstream, Regional Plan Association. He shifted into a general account of rezonings.

“We generally received overwhelming support for everything we did, thanks to Amanda Burden, the city's about 100 wins and one loss,” he said regarding rezonings. “We managed to assemble [for the stadium] very powerful coalition, labor, the newspaper editorial boards, except for the New York Times... which I think was off the rails in terms of its opposition...”

“It often is,” echoed Goldberger.

Doctoroff also cited minority groups and the tourism industry. But “Cablevision spent $50 million to defeat it, with the help of West Side legislators, the Times, and parts of the local community."

“It is by far my biggest disappointment, it's one of the two things we lost in six years, the other being congestion pricing, both at the hands of the state legislature, not to reopen old wounds,” Doctoroff said. “We could never communicate it was about more than a stadium,” rather than “an incredibly cost-effective way” to have a convention center.

City vs. state

“You made some I thought extraordinarily diplomatic comments about the state,” Goldberger said. “Can the city in fact execute its plans and ideas when the state is--I guess we've gotta come out and say it--dysfunctional?”

“Your words, and mine,” Doctoroff said, noting that he was speaking personally, not on behalf of the mayor, but drawing laughs when he said his current employer doesn't care so much about what he says.

“I once devised a formula: Doctoroff's Law, the degree of difficulty for getting projects done, it was essentially, 1 times X, X being the number of agencies, plus 100 times Y, the number of state agencies involved, and then infinity of stadiums involved,” he said.

“The fact of the matter is the state is just really, really difficult to work with," he continued. "It is in part a function of the fact that you don't have the same sort of powerful, much more powerful relative to the legislature, executive.... Even then, there's constant balance between upstate and downstate, which makes it more difficult... You have fights over money all the time. There are certain elements of jealousy. It's just really, really hard.”

He noted that the city bought out the state’s interest in Governor's Island and Brooklyn Bridge Park. “The one that actually works well, because it has a truly independent board, is Hudson River Park,” he said. “That is the one example... other than that, it’s really hard, and the interests are just different.”

He didn't mention Atlantic Yards, which is a state project, as well.

PlaNYC

Goldberger cited PlaNYC as “a long-term plan in a city that has generally not planned beyond the current administration.” (Critics like urban planning professor Tom Angotti note that it was never vetted but remains a mayoral initiative.)

Doctoroff said the plan emanated from the recognition, in 2005, that the city couldn’t site “even the most mundane noxious municipal use,” like tow pounds, and faced projections that the city would grow by almost a million people.

“And we had a belief that actually growth is good if you can properly manage it,” he said. “The marginal benefit, given our existing infrastructure, is greater than our marginal cost.” So, over a year and a half, a strategic land-use plan was transformed into a plan that addressed transportation, parkland, brownfields, housing, air quality, water quality, energy, water reliability, and climate change. He said 123 of 127 separate initiatives are on their way.

The big loss was congestion pricing, which Golberger suggested was “a good idea that was just ahead of its time, politically.”

Doctoroff cited the emergency of hybrid cabs and plans for a million trees. “I think we put in place the institutions and accountability,” he said, allowing that “what a future mayor will do is difficult to say.”

What in the world?

After the Jacobs/Moses and Atlantic Yards discussions, Goldberger, noting that Doctoroff travels around the world in his position at Bloomberg, LP, asked what he’d seen around the world that, if he were still Deputy Mayor, he'd like to bring back to New York?

“I don't think there's anything dramatic,” Doctoroff said, eschewing the opportunity to embrace the fast-track land-use processes of places like Hong Kong or Shanghai.

He cited bike lanes in Europe, a one-seat bullet train from the Shanghai airport, and public architecture in Spain, but said, in relation to the latter, “we have a very different governmental model, which makes us rely far more on the private sector.”

“In fact, as I travel around.. I see cities really trying to emulate New York City, he said, suggesting, “I view diversity as the primary competitive advantage.” (Well, there’s ethnic diversity, and there’s political diversity.)

In the next decades

An audience member, pointing out that New York University has a plan for 2031, asked if any other institutions have long-term plans.

Doctoroff cited the Columbia expansion. “You'll see Willets Point, in Queens, take a couple of cycles to actually get built out,” he added, avoiding the chance to offer a timeline prediction for Atlantic Yards.

“The waterfront in Brooklyn and Queens will develop over a 20-year time,” suggesting--as Garvin has sugested--that light rail might extend from Astoria down to Red Hook.

“Our job, as people in government, is to create the conditions for the market to operate when there is a market,” he said. “That's why you do all these plans and have them in place for when times are right... at some point, you'll see something happen in Sunnyside Yards in Queens.”

That free-market emphasis was not quite in the fore last year when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority agreed to compromise with Forest City Ratner.

Future plans

Would Doctoroff go back into government?

“I kind of view a year in government like a dog year,” said Doctoroff, who added that he loved it and “left at exactly the right time... before I had a chance to get too cynical. I don't regret any of it, but, at the same point, I don't miss it, at all. it was an extraordinary experience... the opportunity to serve under Mayor Bloomberg was amazing.”

“But government's hard, it really is,” he added. “People ask me about the difference between government and the private sector. The private sector, you may be involved in a large organization, they tend to be reasonably disciplined, and obedient."

"The public sector is exactly the opposite, by design," he said. "In government, in order to be effective, you need to learn how to manage conflict. There are many many parties who have a legitimate vested interest... you have to manage your way through that... It becomes, at some point, somewhat tiresome.”

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