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Jane Jacobs on Atlantic Yards: “What a shame” (really)

Alex Marshall's review of The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, by Roberta Brandes Gratz, reminded me to go back to my notes for several posts I had planned.

There's a lot to mine from the book, but first, consider Gratz's mini-scoop regarding Jacobs and Atlantic Yards. After delineating the story of AY--a throwback to Robert Moses-style development--Gratz takes aim at those who claim the legacy of Jacobs just because they create a project with "mixed use."

Change and "catalysmic" money

Jacobs, she writes, was not against "change," but supported a mix of old and new:
And, of course, a true reading of Jacobs’s books versus a pseudounderstanding would indicate her disapproval of everything about Atlantic Yards but also her expectation for continued change and growth, just not [Bruce] Ratner’s idea of change and growth, any more than a Moses plan. A basic Jacobs precept is complexity: no complexity is possible in a monolithic development of this scale by one developer and designed by one architect.

Another basic Jacobs precept is opposition to "cataclysmic” money and development. Surely, this project qualifies as cataclysmic change. The proposal is so inimical to the character of the district and, in fact, the whole borough of Brooklyn that it is off any chart of Jacobs’s’ principles.

Trying to show how Atlantic Yards contradicts every Jacobs principle can be tiresome. And, in fact, she was too unpredictable for such an exercise. Furthermore, Jacobs was never about how to develop or design as much as how to think about development, how to observe and understand what works, how to respect what exists, how to scrutinize plans skeptically, how to nurture innovation, new growth, and resilience. That says it all.

As it happens, I had a brief conversation with Jane about Atlantic Yards in one of my last visits with her before her death. The development had only recently been proposed [Jacobs died 4/25/06], and she agreed that it was right out of the pages of old, discarded development models derivative of Moses. There was not much to discuss. She shook her head and said, “What a shame.”
(Emphases in original)

There is more to say, however. If Jacobs was never about how to develop but how to think about it, how should we think about it?

There are some lessons in the book, and some lingering questions, both of which I'll address in an upcoming post.

Comments

  1. Nicely put Norman. As I've said in print, I think the design of a mega project like Atlantic Yards is actually a physical rendering of the power dynamics of a city. Ratner and company have lots of power, the public has little, and the design of the project shows that. If power were spread more equitably, than the streets and buildings of the project would be of a finer grain as well.
    I actually don't oppose Atlantic Yards, even though the process and the final design suck in most ways. But I would rather have something there than nothing. A big empty rail yard is not helping Brooklyn.

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  2. I'm not sure who the commenter is--pls identify yourself!--but we should be careful about terminology.

    The Atlantic Yards site, of course, is not a "big empty rail yard."

    About 8.5 acres of a 14 acre site is a working rail yard, and only in the past decade did it become financially feasible to build a deck over the railyard and commence development. Which is why, with Hudson Yards, the MTA solicited proposals for development from multiple developers at the start--a big contrast with the AY plan.

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    Replies
    1. Whoops, that's a 22 acre site, so the railyard is less than 40% of the site.

      Delete
  3. Sorry for not leaving my name on my comment. I thought it did it automatically or something. I'm Alex Marshall, the guy who wrote the book review of Gratz's book.

    Of course you're right Norman. The state should have done an open request for proposals on the site, as with Hudson Yards. Even better, the state should have done the basic design itself, including streets, building massing, and so forth, and only then sought developers.

    Better still, the state should have paid to deck over the railyards themselves, and then leased out the property to private developers. The state would have made more money on the deal, long term.

    Alex Marshall

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks again, Norman, for another interesting and thought provoking discussion about the work of Jane Jacobs!

    1) Norman wrote:

    After delineating the story of AY--a throwback to Robert Moses-style development--Gratz takes aim at those who claim the legacy of Jacobs just because they create a project with "mixed use."

    Benjamin writes:

    I think it’s important to remember that a number of the projects that Jacobs explicitly criticized in “Death and Life . . .”, like Stuyvesant Town, were indeed projects that contained SOME mix of uses. But, as Jacobs discusses, just having some mix of uses doesn’t mean that an area has the benefits of being a truly mixed-use district -- and, of course, there are other important factors (other than a mix of uses) to consider too.

    2) Roberta Gratz wrote (in part):

    “. . . no complexity is possible in a monolithic development of this scale by one developer and designed by one architect.”

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    In a discussion about Jane Jacobs and Atlantic Yards, I think it’s important to compare (as has, indeed, been done many times on the Atlantic Yards Report) the Atlantic Yards development to Rockefeller Center (which is, of course, a wonderful large-scale project that Jacobs had nice words for). I think that when one does, one sees that there are big differences between the two that make Atlantic Yards a much, much inferior development.

    But a comparison with Rockefeller Center also shows, so it seems to me, that a large-scale development can be a project by one developer and, in my opinion, a project by “one” architect (see more about this below) and still be sufficiently diverse and complex enough to be a healthy addition to the urban fabric (and be a development that Jacobs has nice words for). (Although I know that Rockefeller Center was, “officially speaking,” designed by a number of different architectural firms, it seems to me that this isn’t really as significant as it has been made out to be. But I’ll have to discuss this some other time.)

    3) Roberta Gratz wrote (in part):

    Another basic Jacobs precept is opposition to "cataclysmic” money and development. Surely, this project qualifies as cataclysmic change. The proposal is so inimical to the character of the district and, in fact, the whole borough of Brooklyn that it is off any chart of Jacobs’s’ principles.

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    While I certainly don’t disagree that Atlantic Yards is “off any chart of Jacobs’s principles,” again I think it’s important to remember that Rockefeller Center also essentially breaks the same “rules” that have been mentioned above too. So, again, I think it’s important to look into the significant differences between Atlantic Yards and Rockefeller Center.

    4) Norman wrote:

    If Jacobs was never about how to develop but how to think about it, how should we think about it?

    Benjamin writes:

    As part of such a discussion, I think it’s useful to look at some of Jacobs’ other books too, in addition to “Death and Life . . . ” Here are two books that come immediately to mind:

    a) “Economy of Cities” -- I think this book shows, among other things, how the Atlantic Yards project does not really constitute true economic development.

    b) “Systems of Survival” -- I think this book shows why the level of government involvement in the project is so problematic.

    Saturday, September 11, 2010, 12:10 a.m.

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  5. In response to Benjamin Hemric, Gratz does acknowledge Rockefeller Center:
    "Yet Rockefeller Center evolved. It started as a planned site for an opera house, changed with the times, was designed by thirteen different architects, connected seamlessly to the existing grid (even adding a street), it totally geared to pedestrians and mass transit, not cars, and did not overwhelm the airspace of its site."

    I wrote about Rock Centere here:
    http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2009/01/learning-from-rockefeller-center.html

    I'll agree that product trumped process. Still, there are significant contrasts with Atlantic Yards, notably the addition of a street for Rock Center versus superblocks for AY.

    ReplyDelete
  6. PART ONE

    1) Norman wrote [additional text within the brackets is mine – BH]:

    In response to Benjamin Hemric, [in her book] Gratz does acknowledge Rockefeller Center . . .

    Benjamin writes:

    My comments in this thread are about quotations in the blogpost rather than about Gratz’s book itself. (I haven’t yet had a chance to carefully read Gratz’s book.)

    2) In the original blogpost, Norman quoted Gratz as follows:

    “A basic Jacobs precept is complexity: no complexity is possible in a monolithic development of this scale by one developer and designed by one architect.”

    Benjamin writes:

    Since Rockefeller Center is a development by one developer and “really” (in my opinion) by one architect, and since Rockefeller Center is, nevertheless, diverse and complex enough to be a very successful development (and to have garnered nice words from Jane Jacobs too), I think the Gratz statement (at least as it has been excerpted in the blog post) is inaccurate. (See my suggested rewording a bit further below.)

    Also, while I don’t really disagree that Jacobs felt that healthy urban districts are “complex,” it seems to me that “diverse” is actually a better word, since things can be (needlessly) complex without also being diverse.

    Here’s a rewording of the statement that would better reflect my own opinion:

    “Jacobs felt that diversity (not just a ‘politically correct’ kind of racial/ethnic diversity, but a broad-ranging diversity of uses, building types, etc.) is essential for true urban health; and such diversity is VERY difficult, although not impossible, to achieve in a large-scale development by one developer and one architect. Rockefeller Center achieved it; but Atlantic Yards seems very likely to fall a great deal short of the mark.”

    (To be continued.)

    ReplyDelete
  7. PART TWO

    3) Norman wrote [additional text and numbering within the brackets is mine – BH):

    [1] I’ll agree [with regard to Rockefeller Center] that product trumped process. [2] Still, there are significant contrasts with Atlantic Yards, notably the addition of a street for Rock Center versus superblocks for AY.

    Benjamin writes:

    With regard to the statement [1] above, I don’t think that “product trumped process” – in my opinion, the process was, indeed, an important element in the creation of the Center’s greatness. And, as mentioned in a comment on the July 26, 2010, Atlantic Yards Report thread, “In the Boston Review, an Atlantic Yards-centric review of The Battle for Gotham,” I think Rockefeller Center would most likely have been WORSE, not better if, for instance, it had been the product of, say, a citizen review process, instead. (I’ve slightly edited the following excerpt from my original comment, to make it read better.)

    “Would community oversight have made Rockefeller Center urbanistically better 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 urbanistically successful -- and probably even jeopardized its successful construction in the first place. ("Too many cooks spoil the broth.")”

    With regard to statement [2] above, of course there are significant differences between Rockefeller Center and Atlantic Yards. As I said in my original comments in this thread:

    “In a discussion about Jane Jacobs and Atlantic Yards, I think it’s important to compare . . . the Atlantic Yards development to Rockefeller Center . . . . I think that when one does, one sees that there are big differences between the two that make Atlantic Yards a much, much inferior development.”

    However, while the creation of an additional street in one development and the closing of a street in the other is an important difference between the two developments, I think there are also other important differences too. And one of the important differences is regarding the processes that have produced the two developments: one (Rockefeller Center) is essentially a product of the marketplace and one (Atlantic Yards) is essentially the product of top down “state capitalist” planning.

    This is part of what I was getting at in my July 28th comment in the “In the Boston Review . . .” thread:

    “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.”

    Benjmain Hemric
    Tues, September 14, 2010, 12:31 a.m.

    ReplyDelete

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