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MAS Summit: the dominance of NYC EDC in planning, the value of green space, and the importance of sharing the bounty across the boroughs

While the livability survey revealed at the Municipal Art Society's (MAS) Summit for New York City October 21-22 suggested that most New Yorkers were satisfied, there were significant pockets of discontent, notably (and unsurprisingly) among poorer residents in the outer boroughs.

So there was a good deal of discussion about how to improve things. After all, suggested Robert McNulty, founder and president of Partners for Livable Communities, "livability should be defined by the least advantaged member of your community."

(I don't think that that Rawlsian perspective is necessarily shared by most running the city, so that comment must be seen as somewhat pollyannish.)


Blame NYC EDC

Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, blamed the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYC EDC) for thinking that parking garages and big development like the East Side Gateway Mall or Yankee Stadium were the key to development.

"I think EDC needs to undergo a revolution," he said. "This stuff isn't window dressing." Such "stuff" includes things like parks and transportation.

Indeed, in a 10/4/10 Gotham Gazette column headlined The Real Power in City Planning, Hunter College planning professor Tom Angotti wrote:
Name just about any big and controversial development project in New York City -- the new Yankee Stadium, Bronx Terminal Market, Willets Point, Coney Island, Metrotech -- and behind them stands a single powerful dealmaker that makes them possible, the New York City Economic Development Corp. or EDC.
His conclusion:
Whether EDC does better planning and development because of its special position and powers is an open question that we might all disagree on. But EDC has assumed critical government planning powers that the City Charter and local law give to city agencies. By negotiating and making decisions in the shadows, EDC can avoid the sunlight that helps citizens understand what is getting developed and decide whether they want it or not. We may know what EDC's executives say to the public through their public relations office but little is know what is said in their exclusive discussions with developers.
Note that NYC EDC has supported Atlantic Yards, though the lead role went to another not quite transparent agency, the Empire State Development Corporation, controlled by the governor.

Spreading the bounty

Mary Rowe, an MAS Urban Fellow, offered a quote that made several news reports: "If you're white, male, under 45, making more than $75,000, the city's working for you--duh." But the focus, she said, should be on for whom is it not livable.

"Perhaps we need to spread some of those resources into the other boroughs and enrich lives," suggested McNulty. In Gothenburg, Sweden, the government has placed first-class public gymnasiums in all metro regions and has the symphony play there regularly, he said. (Sweden does a lot of things, like offer parental leave to men, that other countries don't.)

In Medellín, Colombia, world-class architects have been enlisted to build new (award-winning), serving as anchors for neighborhoods and businesses, he said. He suggested a similar role for "one of the branches of New York library in one of the boroughs that's not quite so happy with their quality of life,"

(While there's no "New York library"--the New York Public Library operates in three boroughs, while the Queens Library and Brooklyn Public Library operate in their respective boroughs--his point is legitimate. And relatively new libraries such as the large Flushing branch in Queens, opened in 1998, play significant roles. However, the city has cut rather than increased library spending.)

The role of parks

McNulty noted that the survey suggested that people value green spaces more than stadiums.

Rowe suggested that there was great potential in the green space on New York City Housing Authority property Indeed, author Roberta Brandes Gratz later suggested that the city survey residents of the housing projects regarding use of such underutilized space.

John Mangin of the Center for Urban Pedagogy how great parks could be achieved in less wealthy areas of the city, given that such parks in more affluent areas rely on private fundraising and business improvement districts (BIDs) that collect money from landowners.

"There's no easy answer," responded McNulty, who noted that, in some cities the health care industry supports parks are supporting parks. (The Cleveland Botanic Garden is apparently now half-funded by hospitals.)

No one referenced the recent New York magazine article on St. Vincent's and the precarious state of most hospitals in the city or the Next American City article on the failure of the city to adequately fund parks.

Still, they suggested that the survey could be used to mobile public opinion.

Could parks be institutionalized in vertical buildings, one attendee asked.

White said it was possible, citing a residential housing developer who lamented that "the city forces him to build parking... Why not change the zoning code so that money is put in livability enhancements instead of parking?"

Indeed, there's finally a move afoot to drop the outdated mandatory minimums--which also affect Atlantic Yards--that I dubbed PlaNYC 1950.

Linking the boroughs

One questioner pointed out how the subway system was designed to move people to the center, not crosstown, and that decentralization was needed.

White said he was very encouraged by the promotion of bus rapid transit (BRT) on Fordham Road in the Bronx, and was looking forward to its implementation on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn.

Where subsidies go

Moderator Alison Tocci of TimeOut North America said that small arts and cultural groups can no longer afford to bring in performers for a two-week or one-month run, given the costs of performance spaces and temporary housing.

At another panel, planner and consultant Ethel Sheffer, mused, "This may not be the time to say it... but government has continued to provide incentives to keep financial sector here... we may have to find a way to keep the arts... to permit the smaller theater or smaller gallery not to have to be displaced by the real estate."

She said government could play a role in subsidizing or creating new artists' housing in the spirit of the Westbeth, appropriate to the way people are living and working now and that requirements for support should be handled with subtlety: "it's artificial if it's not integrated into the community."

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  1. EDC should not be involved in real estate development.

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