Thursday, September 09, 2010

From "Intractable Democracy," the tension between regional and local; also, RPA's Marshall sees power imbalance as source of (discredited) superblocks

In Intractable Democracy: Fifty Years of Community-Based Planning, a new collection of articles and interviews by and with people associated with the Pratt Institute City and Regional Planning Program, there's an intriguing article by Michael Flynn, director of capital planning at the New York City Department of Transportation.

As a community planner turned city bureaucrat, Flynn knows well the tension between bottom-up planning and municipal power, and knows that it's not easy to resolve.

He muses:
One thing that's become clear to me over time (and I can hear the cries of "Sellout!" now) is that there is an interesting tension between the concept of community-based planning and the institution of government in general. It's the same tension we're all familiar with between the archetypes of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. We humans clearly organized ourselves into societies, and evolved government to tackle problems that must be addressed collectively and to look out for the common good. As planners we understand from experience that some issues are too spread out, too interlinked, or to "acute costs, diffuse benefits" to be tackled at a granular level. Sometimes the good of the many must trump the good of the few, or the regional must trump the local.

On the other hand, what good is government if it's not responsive to the needs of communities. What good is power without a grounding in real hopes, real concerns, real lives? At least when it comes to local issues, who better to decide the fate of a community than the locals themselves? The question is, where is the proper balance between community-based planning and getting things done for the greater good? For example, is it more important that the city have a citywide, interlinked network of bike paths, or should communities who don't want bike lanes have the final say? Should we price on-street parking higher because it's been proven to improve turnover and reduce congestion, or acquiesce to local businesses who think cheaper parking will improve foot traffic?

These are questions that localities everywhere face not just New York City. I sure don't know the answer--like most things, it probably lies somewhere in between the extremes.
The AY angle

These questions came up, of course, with Atlantic Yards. Issues like affordable housing and the siting of a major sports facility are not merely local issues. But they have disproportionate local impact, so a planning process should take into account local considerations, as well the balance between public and private benefits.

Remember, in the Times yesterday, As Stadiums Vanish, Their Debt Lives On, offered this truism:
Rather than confront teams, they have often buckled when owners — usually threatening to move — have demanded that the public pay for new suites, parking or arenas and stadiums.

With state and local budgets stretched by the recession, politicians are only now starting to look askance at privately held teams trying to tap the public till.
Instead, we got a process that involved a take-it-or-leave-it plan, tweaked at the margins, with the form, but not the actual function, of local participation.

And that's how a massive surface parking lot is planned, and how the state gave away arena naming rights.

The superblock prevails

Musing about why the Atlantic Yards plan and other megaprojects contain superblocks, even though they're discredited, Alex Marshall of the Regional Plan Association, writing in January 2008, pointed ultimately to an imbalance in political power:
One partial answer is all the emphasis in the last few years on protecting against terrorism. Setbacks for more prominent buildings are often larger now, to allow for the placement of bollards and other protective measures. But there is a certain lack of logic here. After all, most New York City buildings do not have enormous setbacks from the street, so pushing that for newer buildings hardly deprives a terrorist of potential targets.

A stronger explanation lies in finance and issues of political power, I'm convinced. Large concentrations of money affect development here disproportionately, and such large concentrations of money often favor having large concentrations of land to work with. While it may be a disservice to the city to have a large, island-like superblock--traffic flow is disrupted, walking and bicycling trips are made more difficuly--to the developer, a superblock allows for wide floor plates and campus-like settings that would not otherwise be possible. And since the government sector is weak, large developers often end up doing what suits them first, not the public.

One relatively easy way to promote the creation of fewer new superblocks is to make the promotion of a finer-grained street grid one of the specific criteria by which a project is judged when under development review. I sense this is not now the case.
Not only that, the superblock on the southeast end of the Atlantic Yards site allows a formerly public street to be incorporated into open space; otherwise, with the enormous expected increase of population, the ratio of people to open space would be significantly skewed.

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