Skip to main content

RPA Assembly on Innovation and the Global City: the need to invest in infrastructure and human capital (what, not arenas?)

The Regional Plan Association's (RPA) 2011 Regional Assembly, “Innovation and the Global City,” held April 15 in New York City, which explored "what global cities, from Singapore to London, and from Stockholm to New York, are doing to remain competitive on the world stage."

In case you're wondering, building a new arena to recruit a sports team from a neighboring state was not a focus of the event.

A Jane Jacobs echo

Opening the Assembly, citing advances in information technology, the RPA's Thomas Wright commented, "Imagine just what Jane Jacobs would have accomplished if she had access to modern social media."

It was an echo of Aaron Naparstek's April 2006 comment to the New York Times: "If Jane Jacobs had the tools and technology back when she was fighting Robert Moses' plans to bulldoze Lower Manhattan, I bet 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities' would have been a blog.""

The Glaeser keynote

The libertarian-tinged Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, author of the new book Triumph of the City, gave the keynote.

He described how, even though the transportation cost advantages (rail, water) vanished for older cities, and productivity moved to cheaper, warmer cities, Detroit could not reinvent itself, but New York did, harnessing innovation in finance and other fields.

(Note that, as Slate architecture critic Witold Rybczynski pointed out in his review:
[Glaeser's] emphasis on human capital is important because politicians and planners tend to overvalue the physical environment. They encourage cities to look for the Next New Thing, whether it's pedestrian malls, downtown stadiums, iconic museums, or light rail.)

Edward Glaeser Keynote and Panel Discussion from Regional Plan Association on Vimeo.

Declining cities like Detroit, home of the little-used People Mover, do not need investments in infrastructure, as housing costs are less than new construction, Glaeser suggested. Infastructure is needed in growing regions.

The downside of having a city that succeeds is that it can become incredibly expensive, he said, segueing into a critique he's made of Jane Jacobs: that she believed "preserving older, shorter structures would somehow keep prices affordable for budding entrepreneurs."

That's not so, as blogger "Old Urbanist" pointed out in a response: Jacobs argued for a shifting mix of structures.

Predicting success

The panel after his speech raised some interesting question. The moderator, the RPA's Julia Vitullo-Martin, asked Lynne Sagalyn, author of the study Times Square Roulette, if we can know ahead of time if a project is going to be successful.

"The Times Square initiative," Sagalyn responded, "came out of the depths of that kind of [1070s] malaise that the city was suffering under, right after the fiscal crisis... The initiative to redevelop, to take a real estate strategy toward Times Square, was viewed as a likely success, for no other reason than all other strategies had failed." Previously, cities tried to legislate out pornography, then politically manage it.

Given that it was the first time city was going to use its condemnation powers for commercial redevelopment, it was extraordinarily risky. "This is not what politician generally do, enter into long term projects where they can't cut the ribbon in a number of years," she said.

The value of the land and the location, its adjacency to transportation, had always been fundamental to driving land values, Sagalyn noted. But it. ultimately took the city's power of condemnation and land assembly to unlock it. "It was the classic instance of the city using public powers."

So, I wonder, would it have required condemnation to unlock the value of the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard? Not for a project limited to the railyard.

But an arena would span beyond the railyard, so once the city and state agreed to back an arena, there were fewer potential places (though Forest City Ratner might have used its Atlantic Center Mall).

The deputy mayor

Vitullo-Martin turned to Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Robert Steel. She said she was very impressed with a comment he made, that it was the city's job not to find the next thing, but to create the conditions for it.

(Such a philosophy goes out the window, of course, when it comes to the scarce commodity of professional sports teams.)

What are the top priorities, and might even be the Times Square of the next generation, she asked.

Steel divided his answer into two categories: ongoing issues that can be finished, and long-term projects that can be launched. In the first category, he cited the reconstruction of Lower Manhattan, Bloomberg's plan to create and retain affordable housing, and the mayor's effort to increase park space and enhance quality of life.

Long-term plans, Steel said, include the repositioning of the waterfront--which, I'd add, has also cut into manufacturing--the city's "forward-looking" rezonings, and the effort to launch a new science and engineering university to complement what is actually "the college town of America."

Glaeser called the list "enormously sensible," as the "best local development strategy is to attract and train smart people." And, as much as he resists the urge to pick winners, Glaeser said applied sciences could be the latter-day equivalent of investments in land-grant colleges.

Steel noted that other cities compete with New York on quality of life--"I have three daughters in their twenties"--and "we have a disadvantage of cost of living; we have to compete with a robust lifestyle."

Costs of development

Vitullo-Martin pointed to Glaeser's citation of "the tendency to invoke barriers to building that make it so hard to provide new housing and new commercial space, and has very unfortunate effect of driving people elsewhere."

(One of those barriers suggested by Glaeser, unmentioned during the panel, is that preservation has gone too far. Preservationists think he's gone too far; here's a response from Landmarks 45.)

Sagalyn agreed that "the development cost issue" is significant, though not new. The city's rezonings, along with initiatives like Hudson Yards and the extension of the 7 subway line, are adding developable land around transportation. She said a streamlining of building regulations could speed development.

Caution from Burdett

The second keynote speaker, Richard Burdett, Professor of Urban Studies, London School of Economics, and Director, LSE Cities and Urban Age. was less optimistic than Glaeser.

Burdette pointed to photos of new cities in China with endless towers, which hardly resembles the urban form we prize, and the vast disparity of wealth in places like Sao Paulo, where the wealthy have swimming pools on their apartment terraces and nearby favela dwellers lack running water.

"When you enshrine difference like this, you do not get the vitality we were talking about in the previous session," Burdett declared.

Richard Burdett Keynote and Panel Discussion from Regional Plan Association on Vimeo.

Current cities overall are not sustainable, he said, so the question is how to design them to be sustainable, more like New York--dense, with public transit--than Phoenix, or Sao Paolo, where the wealthy use helicopters to commute.

Burdett cited innovations in Bogota, where the "mayor started building cycleways to absolutely nowhere," and now "they've become the veins of the informal city," and also replaced "this jumble of irregular traffic" with Bus Rapid Transit.

London vs. New York

He compared London and New York City, noting that the latter has an extra layer of government, the state.

"I'm not saying one is good or bad," he said carefully, "but it has certainly helped mayors of London, to have Transport for London under one roof" rather than, as in New York, relying on the state-controlled Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the bi-state Port Authority of NY/NJ.

"That's why [Mayor] Ken Livingstone, despite all advice not to do it, did introduce the congestion charge," he said, implicitly contrasting that with Mayor Mike Bloomberg's unsuccessful effort to get the state to pass congestion pricing.

The importance of infrastructure

Vitullo-Martin asked Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Chairman and CEO Jay Walder, who formerly led Transport for London, what lessons London has for New York.

Walder responded that Glaeser and Burdett provoked "both a sense of optimism and also a sense of concern" and suggested that both cities face similar challenges, notably rebuilding an aging infrastructure while developing new things.

"At the same time they're making very dramatic changes in the delivery of public services, they're confirming the need to invest," he said of London, suggesting that New York must remember to do both.

Burdett pointed out that such a commitment in London is recent, as the first elected mayor in London was instituted in 2000, leading to collaboration between city, metropolitan entity, and region.

Vitullo-Martin commented, "If we were to do a summary of the most important principles coming out of the two panels, Jay's elegant phrasing of 'confirming the need to invest' would be the most important principle."

She suggested that "New York is a very confident place, in many ways, but we've sort of lost our confidence in our ability to invest productively in public building."

Perhaps, I'd suggest, that's because we've too often shunted infrastructure to private entities.

Walder pointed out that the MTA has recovered remarkably, as "30 years ago, we had a transit system that was a national symbol of urban decay." He offered a dramatic statistic: in 1983, trains went only 7500 miles before breakdowns, while, at end of 2010, the comparable statistic was 170,000 miles.

Walder also observed that public-private partnerships have both been successes and failures. In one example of the former, he noted that a rail line to the Docklands was ahead of schedule, and Mayor Livingstone was "very upset, because there wasn't time to schedule the groundbreaking."

Burdette warned about "the seductiveness of the localism agenda," in which local residents try to exercise veto power over major projects.

He has a point; I'd suggest that when it comes to things like high-speed rail, there should be a presumption of public purpose, but basketball arenas built for private profit might get a tougher look.

The need for collaboration

Later that day, at a panel on governance, participants pointed to a new federal grant (document below), as City Limits reported 4/15/11, to support connections between housing and transit in New York City, Long Island, Westchester, and nearby Connecticut cities.

(What, no Newark? New Jersey dropped out of the proposal.)

City Limits reported:
Amanda Burden, New York City's planning commission chairperson, said the city would use its share of the grant with four goals in mind: creating new, mixed-income housing; improving "social equity"; achieving a cleaner environment and applying a "strategic approach to climate change."

The Metro-North corridor in the Bronx includes 14 stations along the railroad's Hudson and Harlem lines, some of which are located in areas affected by recent or pending rezoning that lay the groundwork for locating dense housing close to transit.

East New York is a once-forlorn area that has been transformed through community-led development. Burden says the area is "rich in mass transit," features strong community players and is located near an industrial business zone that offers a chance at locating workers close to jobs—a key goal of the Obama initiative, which links urban development to preserving open space.
Sustainable Communities

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Forest City acknowledges unspecified delays in Pacific Park, cites $300 million "impairment" in project value; what about affordable housing pledge?

Updated Monday Nov. 7 am: Note follow-up coverage of stock price drop and investor conference call and pending questions.

Pacific Park Brooklyn is seriously delayed, Forest City Realty Trust said yesterday in a news release, which further acknowledged that the project has caused a $300 million impairment, or write-down of the asset, as the expected revenues no longer exceed the carrying cost.

The Cleveland-based developer, parent of Brooklyn-based Forest City Ratner, which is a 30% investor in Pacific Park along with 70% partner/overseer Greenland USA, blamed the "significant impairment" on an oversupply of market-rate apartments, the uncertain fate of the 421-a tax break, and a continued increase in construction costs.

While the delay essentially confirms the obvious, given that two major buildings have not launched despite plans to do so, it raises significant questions about the future of the project, including:
if market-rate construction is delayed, will the affordable h…

Revising official figures, new report reveals Nets averaged just 11,622 home fans last season, Islanders drew 11,200 (and have option to leave in 2018)

The Brooklyn Nets drew an average of only 11,622 fans per home game in their most recent (and lousy) season, more than 23% below the announced official attendance figure, and little more than 65% of the Barclays Center's capacity.

The New York Islanders also drew some 19.4% below announced attendance, or 11,200 fans per home game.

The surprising numbers were disclosed in a consultant's report attached to the Preliminary Official Statement for the refinancing of some $462 million in tax-exempt bonds for the Barclays Center (plus another $20 million in taxable bonds). The refinancing should lower costs to Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the arena operating company, by and average of $3.4 million a year through 2044 in paying off arena construction.

According to official figures, the Brooklyn Nets attendance averaged 17,187 in the debut season, 2012-13, 17,251 in 2013-14, 17,037 in 2014-15, and 15,125 in the most recent season, 2015-16. For hoops, the arena holds 17,732.

But official…

Is Barclays Center dumping the Islanders, or are they renegotiating? Evidence varies (bond doc, cash receipts); NHL attendance biggest variable

The Internet has been abuzz since Bloomberg's Scott Soshnick reported 1/30/17, using an overly conclusory headline, that Brooklyn’s Barclays Center Is Dumping the Islanders.

That would end an unusual arrangement in which the arena agrees to pay the team a fixed sum (minus certain expenses), in exchange for keeping tickets, suite, and sponsorship revenue.

The arena would earn more without the hockey team, according to Bloomberg, which cited “a financial projection shared with potential investors showed the Islanders won’t contribute any revenue after the 2018-19 season--a clear signal that the team won’t play there, the people said."

That "signal," however, is hardly definitive, as are the media leaks about a prospective new arena in Queens, as shown in the screenshot below from Newsday. Both sides are surely pushing for advantage, if not bluffing.

Consider: the arena and the Islanders can't even formally begin their opt-out talks until after this season. The disc…

Skanska says it "expected to assemble a properly designed modular building, not engage in an iterative R&D experiment"

On 12/10/16, I noted that FastCo.Design's Prefab's Moment of Reckoning article dialed back the gush on the 461 Dean modular tower compared to the publication's previous coverage.

Still, I noted that the article relied on developer Forest City Ratner and architect SHoP to put the best possible spin on what was clearly a failure. From the article: At the project's outset, it took the factory (managed by Skanska at the time) two to three weeks to build a module. By the end, under FCRC's management, the builders cut that down to six days. "The project took a little longer than expected and cost a little bit more than expected because we started the project with the wrong contractor," [Forest City's Adam] Greene says.Skanska jabs back
Well, Forest City's estranged partner Skanska later weighed in--not sure whether they weren't asked or just missed a deadline--and their article was updated 12/13/16. Here's Skanska's statement, which shows th…

Not just logistics: bypassing Brooklyn for DNC 2016 also saved on optics (role of Russian oligarch, Shanghai government)

Surely the logistical challenges of holding a national presidential nominating convention in Brooklyn were the main (and stated) reasons for the Democratic National Committee's choice of Philadelphia.

And, as I wrote in NY Slant, the huge security cordon in Philadelphia would have been impossible in Brooklyn.

But consider also the optics. As I wrote in my 1/21/15 op-ed in the Times arguing that the choice of Brooklyn was a bad idea:
The arena also raises ethically sticky questions for the Democrats. While the Barclays Center is owned primarily by Forest City Ratner, 45 percent of it is owned by the Russian billionaire Mikhail D. Prokhorov (who also owns 80 percent of the Brooklyn Nets). Mr. Prokhorov has a necessarily cordial relationship with Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — though he has been critical of Mr. Putin in the past, last year, at the Russian president’s request, he tried to transfer ownership of the Nets to one of his Moscow-based companies. An oligarch-owned a…

Former ESDC CEO Lago returns to NYC to head City Planning Commission

Carl Weisbrod, Mayor Bill de Blasio's City Planning Commission Chairman and Director of the Department of City Planning, is resigning,

And he's being replaced by Marisa Lago, currently a federal official, but who Atlantic Yards-ologists remember as the short-term Empire State Development Corporation CEO who, in an impolitic but candid 2009 statement, acknowledged that the project would take "decades."

Still, Lago not long after that played the good soldier at a May 2009 Senate oversight hearing, justifying changes in the project but claiming the public benefits remained the same.

By returning to City Planning, Lago will join former ESDC General Counsel Anita Laremont, who after retiring from the state (and taking a pension) got the job with the city.

Back at planning

Lago, a lawyer, in 1983 began work as an aide to City Planning Chairman Herb Sturz, and later served as the General Counsel to the president of the NYC Economic Development Corporation, Weisbrod himself.