Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Real public works (transportation), the mis-described "wave of development" (as of 2007), and Atlantic Yards

At the panel Roads to Nowhere: Public Works in a Time of Crisis, last night at the Museum of the City of New York, the discussion focused on the Access to the Region's Core (ARC) train tunnel between New Jersey and New York vetoed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the Second Avenue Subway, and relatively smaller fixes like Bus Rapid Transit.

All of those are infrastructure projects that drive development. None are mega-projects like Atlantic Yards, run by a single private developer. (Atlantic Yards would add a transit entrance to an existing station, thus mainly serving the arena, and an upgraded but smaller railyard, not previously requested by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.)

Why did Christie act? Jeff Zupan of the Regional Plan Association suggested it was a matter of politics, as he had inherited a project approved by his predecessor: "politicians are always thinking about cutting a ribbon in their terms in office."

Joan Byron of the Pratt Center for Community Development added that Christie was elected by South Jersey drivers, not North Jersey transit riders. She argued that transit advocates had done too little to build a base of public support. (Also see Benjamin Kabak's good summary on Second Avenue Sagas.)

That "wave of development"


I couldn't help but think back on a misguided 1/1/07 New York Times overview, headlined Wave of Development, Cleared for Takeoff:
City, state and federal agencies granted final approvals last month to a half-dozen wide-ranging projects in a political aligning of the stars that will promote New York City's most ambitious economic development agenda in decades.

Approval or financing was given to a Second Avenue subway; an extension of the Flushing Line to the Far West Side; a spur to connect the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal; financing for tens of thousands of apartments for low- and moderate-income residents; the Atlantic Yards complex near Downtown Brooklyn, which includes a new home for the basketball Nets; and even the bus-stop shelters and public toilets that New Yorkers and visitors have demanded for years.
Yes, the subway and LIRR projects would build important infrastructure to boost economic development, but bus shelters (where) and public toilets (where?) do not economic development make.

Nor does the long-delayed arena. The surrounding office space, once promoted as home to 10,000 jobs, had already been severely reduced, and the one planned office tower is on indefinite hold.

And the Times's curious formulation--"financing for tens of thousands of" subsidized apartments--mis-described a revision in the 421-a tax incentive program, which instead led to a rush to get all market-rate buildings started, and produced hundreds of stalled development sites.

Public works?

So I don't blame author Robert Caro for his broad-brush comment to the Times:
In ''The Power Broker,'' Robert A. Caro in 1974 wrote that without the approval of Robert Moses, who oversaw virtually all public works in New York until he was eased out in 1968, the city was ''utterly unable'' to build anything.

Mr. Caro said in an interview that he, too, was struck by the plethora of projects approved in December.

''Does this alignment of stars show that this is may be a problem that democracy can solve?'' he said. ''For the first time in 40 years, I'm hopeful.''
Moses, for all the criticisms he deserved, built public works.

The Atlantic Yards arena, as well as the stadiums mentioned in the article, is a privately-operated building, with profits and naming rights accruing to the private owner, but benefiting from the fig-leaf of public ownership in order to get federal tax-exempt bonds.

Reasons for infrastructure delay

Zupan offered a list of reasons, in no particular order, why it was tougher to build infrastructure today than generations ago:
  • the multiplicity of agencies involved, with different agendas
  • capital programs of limited length, without assured funding for long-term projects
  • competition with funding for a backlog of regular, "state of good repair" maintenance
  • lack of support for long-term projects vs. the instant gratification of ribbon cutting
  • redoing of environmental impact statements when major changes occur
  • changes in administrations, which bring different agendas
  • unexpected cost overruns, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not
  • a very complex federal environmental review process, NEPA
  • an exacting Federal Transit Administration process
  • opposition by "small but vociferous groups" that larger interests (exemplified by the LIRR's third track project)
  • disagreement in values, such as an emphasis on Manhattan vs. the boroughs
  • an absence of professionalism, replaced by cronyism and political appointees
  • lack of understanding of the economic threat posed by static and crumbling infrastructure
  • the unwillingness to tax ("We expect something for nothing, and it just doesn't happen that way.")
I'll note that a few of those criticisms have been raised in the Atlantic Yards debate; I'd agree that, for truly public projects, such as infrastructure, there should be a way to ensure more rapid progress.

Now we face a significant stall in improvements in the subway and bus system.

An AY footnote

At the end of the program, the panelists were asked about their commutes. Byron said her bicycle commute to Pratt had been "severely compromised" by the closing of the Carlton Avenue Bridge for the Atlantic Yards project--an example of the potential tension between real estate development and transportation.

A bike lane footnote

Asked about issues of walking and biking, Zupan commented, "we have the specter of a former DOT [Department of Transportation] commissioner [Iris Weinshall] suing the city because they're putting a bike lane in Brooklyn--that's horrible."

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