Yes, there's a happy medium to be sought, and New York--where density is unevenly distributed both within the city and within the region--is coming from a different direction than is Hong Kong, which went high-rise at warp speed in the mid-20th century.
The AY angle
And yes, there's an Atlantic Yards angle. As I write:
Or consider how the Port Authority’s [Executive Director Christopher] Ward, at the New York conference, suggested that the resistance to the massive Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn stemmed from locals’ discomfort with a dramatic shift in density. While that shift surely generated dismay, an equal measure of discomfort derives from the perception that Atlantic Yards has been a sweetheart deal, with a single developer anointed public land before any planning process, and with public amenities such as open space coming late rather than early.After all, Atlantic Yards opponents did wind up supporting the Unity Plan, which would have high density, though not as much, and essentially limited to the railyards.
...as in Hong Kong, it’s important to get the balance right between the development business and the central authorities entrusted with the public interest.
And had the dramatic shift in density suggested in the graphic at right (from the Final Environmental Impact Statement) arrived through a more public process, such as a rezoning, a policy statement about the importance of density near this transit hub, and an RFP open to all developers, it might have met with some more public acceptance--especially if there had been an explicit reduction in density.
Note that Atlantic Yards is unlikely to be built at the density approved,, which means the promised benefits would be less--even though alternative (and reduced) measures of benefits were not part of the public review.
The lesson from Jacobs: skepticism
It's unwise to speculate just what might famed urbanist Jane Jacobs would say about specific projects. As critic Paul Goldberger wrote in Block By Block, the companion to a 2007 Jacobs exhibit at the Municipal Art Society:
So if there is any way to follow Jane Jacobs, it is to think of her as showing us not a physical model for city form but rather a perceptual model for skepticism.Democracy in New York
Metropolis columnist Karrie Jacobs (no relation), a Brooklyn resident, attended the first of the two Hong Kong conferences and visited some of the world's rapidly growing cities; in a December 2008 column headlined Boomtown Blues, wrote:
Of course, what Dubai, Shanghai, and Hong Kong have in common is a top-down approach to development... In the West, we envy China’s ability to build on a monumental scale—the Beijing airport! The Bird’s Nest! A subway system quadrupled in size in five years!—and completely change the face of its cities, but residents don’t seem to have a role to play in how their cities are remade, aside from getting out of the way. In Hong Kong, public participation is carefully rationed, and recent protests over the demolition of beloved landmarks—such as the Central Star Ferry Pier and the Queen’s Pier—are a subset of a larger movement advocating open government.That doesn't mean the status quo really works, though. The city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), as shown at a recent hearing of the Charter Review Commission, needs reform. And some major supporters of the ULURP status quo don't think that the state override of zoning--the less-democratic process that led to Atlantic Yards--is the way to go.
What I’ve realized is that for all the grumbling in New York about how Jane Jacobs–ism stands in the way of exciting new developments, it’s revealing to see what happens in cities where there is no Jane. Because what these people are really talking about when they complain about the Jane Jacobs mentality is democracy, the inconvenient fact that we live in a society where ordinary people can have an impact on the political process. My visits to Asia have taught me that there’s a significant upside to routine NIMBYism, the insufferable community-board dramas, the narrow-minded neighborhood crusades, and our Byzantine urban-land-use review process. Democracy may be slow, messy, and dysfunctional, but it sure beats the alternative.
The question is what's next. As discussed in my Urban Omnibus piece, looking at Hong Kong doesn't offer direct lessons.