Monday, July 26, 2010

In the Boston Review, an Atlantic Yards-centric review of The Battle for Gotham

The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, by Roberta Brandes Gratz, is the subject of a thoughtful 2900-word review in the Boston Review, Clear and Hold, by Brooklyn resident and Princeton grad student Casey Walker.

Atlantic Yards gets a significant cameo in the book's Conclusion (its tenth chapter), but it is the focus of Walker's review, which states:
Atlantic Yards is a familiar urban story: surrounding neighborhoods are braced for upheaval; architects have come and gone; redesigns have been announced, lambasted, tweaked, disowned; lawsuits multiply like kudzu; millions of dollars are all but blowing through the air; and the likely date of actual completion is anyone’s guess (Forest City Ratner, the developer, contends the Barclays Center will be finished by 2011, but the Web site does not give a timetable for the rest of the project).
Actually, they're saying 2012, now.

Questions that never got answered

Walker, who wisely recognizes the merits of “infill” development in the railyard, sets out the issues that arose:
The question, of course, is what form that development should take. Should new additions be in scale with the surrounding neighborhoods? Should they be done piecemeal or all at once? Do we need several architects or is one sufficient? How much attention should the city and borough pay to the interests of local boards? Should new construction be limited to the rail yards, or should the development be bigger?

To me, these questions always have been theoretical. It was never hard to see who would prevail. Despite the lawsuits, protests, and holdouts spearheaded by the major opposition group—Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn—Forest City was simply too rich and too shrewd, and its political support was too deep. Its large-scale approach to development would not meet any serious challenges. Atlantic Yards will be a Robert Moses throwback: a massive project, done all at once, unsparing of existing structures, with a skyline soaring above the rooftops of the three and four story brownstone buildings that make up much of the surrounding neighborhoods.
If it is done all at once, I and some others will be very surprised, given the gentle deadlines in the Development Agreement.

The unequal playing field

Read on for thoughts of the city as a delicate organism, Walker's acknowledgment that some big projects (like Rockefeller Center) did work, and Gratz's conclusion, via Walker, that "the continuing influence of Robert Moses is a sign that the battle for a Jacobsian city is continuous, and always fought on an unequal playing field."

7 comments:

  1. What Walker writes is disturbing (but perhaps true)., especially as it is just thrown out there like common knowledge. He writes:

    "To me, these questions always have been theoretical. It was never hard to see who would prevail. Despite the lawsuits, protests, and holdouts spearheaded by the major opposition group—Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn—Forest City was simply too rich and too shrewd, and its political support was too deep. Its large-scale approach to development would not meet any serious challenges. "

    Is he suggesting that Ratner being too shrewd and rich means that courts would never rule against him? Maybe. But what about the law.

    Where he is just wrong is that at least according to Ratner himself, the project was teetering on the brink in 2008. Atlantic Yards, a David v. Goliath fight if ever there was one, DID meet a serious challenge.

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  2. Casey Walker wrote:

    The question, of course, is what form that development should take. Should new additions be in scale with the surrounding neighborhoods? Should they be done piecemeal or all at once? Do we need several architects or is one sufficient? How much attention should the city and borough pay to the interests of local boards? Should new construction be limited to the rail yards, or should the development be bigger?

    . . . [Forrest City's] large-scale approach to development would not meet any serious challenges. Atlantic Yards will be a Robert Moses throwback: a massive project, done all at once, unsparing of existing structures, with a skyline soaring above the rooftops of the three and four story brownstone buildings that make up much of the surrounding neighborhoods.


    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    I've only quickly skimmed the Walker essay, but here is what jumps out at me.

    It seems to me that Walker is confusing the issues here (as have many others too). Atlantic Yards is [1] a Robert Moses-type development and [2] a bad development scheme overall not because it is big, etc. (Rockefeller Center, for example, was a big development and was neither of these things.)

    Rather, Atlantic Yards is [1] a Robert Moses-type development and [2] a bad development scheme overall because it is just a poorly thought out scheme in the first place, and because it involves a high level of government assistance, especially with regards to the government's power of eminent domain.

    It also seems to me that the high level of government involvement in the project helps "insulate" it from its problems as a development scheme.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Wednesday, July 28, 2010, 12:30 a.m.

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  3. Daniel Goldstein is right that even Ratner admits the project was in trouble when the economic downturn hit. However, the political (and business) establishment was always behind the project, so it was hard to maintain a political challenge. In other words, the win--should it have come--would have been because lawsuits delayed Atlantic Yards long enough for the downturn, but not in the political arena, or the legal arena. (One major case still lingers.)

    Benjamin Hemric is right in pointing out the difference between Atlantic Yards and Rockefeller Center. AY is a Robert Moses-type development for our current era, one with far more surface process but still no significant accountability. A development project of considerable size--if not AY dimensions--could be built on the railyard and even (parts of) adjacent blocks, but to win approval from many urbanists it would have to have been done differently.

    Not only are the issues government assistance/involvement, eminent domain, and a one-developer scheme. The fundamental question is the balance of power between the developer and the agencies representing the public.

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  4. Norman, of course you are correct. It was a politically fixed deal, and that never changed.

    But my comment was more about the judiciary. If it was politically fixed (and no doubt it was), and if Ratner is powerful, has a lot of money and doles out a lot of it, should that—does that—impact the courts.

    My fear is that it does. And it shouldn't.

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  5. Norman Oder wrote:

    AY is a Robert Moses-type development for our current era, one with far more surface process but still no significant accountability.


    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    While I agree that Atlantic Yards is indeed a Robert Moses-type development for our current era, I don't believe it is because Atlantic Yards has involved no significant accountability. (In other words, I don't believe that one of the factors making it a Robert-Moses-type development is the fact that there's been little true community input, etc.) Rockefeller Center, for example, is not a Robert Moses-type development, and it didn't have any significant community input either. So I don't think the absence of community input is really a legitimate criteria for a project's "Robert Moses-ness."

    Rather I think the real criteria is whether the building of a project involves government power (especially government power used in an abusive way).

    - - - - - - -

    Norman Oder wrote:

    A development project of considerable size -- if not AY dimensions -- could be built on the railyard and even (parts of) adjacent blocks, but to win approval from many urbanists it would have to have been done differently.

    The fundamental question is the balance of power between the developer and the agencies representing the public.


    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    If what is being meant here is that a hallmark of good urbanism is a responsiveness to community input, I don't think this is true -- and again, Rockefeller Center is a counter example.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Wednesday, 7/28/2010, 9:55 p.m.

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  6. Um, how different is "(especially government power used in an abusive way)" from "no significant accountability"?

    Rockefeller Center may be a counter-example of good urbanism without community input, but it's a different project at a different time.

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  7. Norman Oder wrote:

    . . . how different is "(especially government power used in an abusive way)" from "no significant accountability"?

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    I thought that by "no significant accountability" it was meant that Atlantic Yards wasn't subject to meaningful community reviews by the local community board, etc. This is, of course, very different from using government powers for eminent domain abuse, etc.

    - - - - - -

    Norman Oder wrote:

    Rockefeller Center may be a counter-example of good urbanism without community input, but it's a different project at a different time.

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    I think the question to be addressed here is why are the differences that are being mentioned supposedly relevant / significant to the issue at hand? For example, why is community oversight supposedly necessary for good urbanism now when it wasn't then?

    Would community oversight have made Rockefeller Center better urbanistically or worse? Judging from what I've read about the history of Rockefeller Center, it seems to me that community involvement would likely have made Rockefeller Center much less successful urbanistically -- and probably even jeopardized its successful construction in the first place. ("Too many cooks spoil the broth.") Why is this supposedly different today? Why, and how, have the dynamics supposedly changed?

    Also, it seems to me that it's important not to overlook the way heavy government involvement insulates projects such as Atlantic Yards from their mistakes -- and, indeed, is what makes such projects supposedly "feasible" in the first place. Without heavy government involvement there is no Atlantic Yards in its (various) present form(s).

    The same is not true with regard to truly private developments (that aren't insulated from potential problems by heavy government involvement), like Rockefeller Center.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Wed., July 28, 2010, 11:49 p.m.

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