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Making omelets without breaking eggs? Doctoroff posits post-Moses era

Though revisionists argue that, on balance, Robert Moses’s efforts to build infrastructure, parks, and housing were good for the city, Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff isn’t about to claim Moses’s mantle.

Indeed, leading off a symposium tied to three simultaneous exhibitions under the rubric Robert Moses and the Modern City, Doctoroff last night declared that, yes, Moses deserves a rethink but safely observed that the master builder was “definitely an ends over means kind of guy.”

Speaking at a panel organized by the Museum of the City of New York, Doctoroff (right) acknowledged Moses’s insensitivity to public opinion, towers-in-the-park design (which limited street life and "private market reaction"), and dislocation of hundreds of thousands of people. However, asserted the deputy mayor for economic development, after Moses, for 40 years, “pretty much nothing happened” in terms of new projects and major infrastructure. "What no one has ever disputed is that Moses was the single most prolific builder of public works New York has ever known," he said. "He got things done."

Now, with the approval or launch of projects like Hudson Yards and Atlantic Yards, new stadiums for the Yankees and Mets, waterfront redevelopment and the Javits Center expansion, Doctoroff said, “I believe we are developing a new model for getting things done.”

Like Moses, he said, the Bloomberg administration planned for the long-term. “We brought to office a full formed development agenda,” he said, citing the X-shaped plan to connect underutilized sections of the city for the 2012 Olympics. “Five years later, every area targeted by the Olympics plan is undergoing a renaissance.”

(Note: that 2001 plan, a slide of which Doctoroff had projected on screen, showed nothing at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, since the Atlantic Yards project—later added to the Olympic mix—had not yet been conceived.)

"ULURP works"

And, contra Moses (right, on cover of book accompanying the exhibitions), he declared, “We definitely do not believe you have to break eggs to make omelets.”

"We have learned, occasionally the hard way, the wisdom of getting out to affected communities and their elected officials early and often. ULURP works,” he said of the post-Moses Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. “The City Council is a highly effective collaborator if we listen and respond with lower densities, more affordable housing, more open space, and a commitment to minority hiring. In every single case, the process has made our plan better. And as a result, we have succeeded in gaining approval for all of our dozens of projects, except that one." (The West Side Stadium)
Left unsaid was that Atlantic Yards is a state project, bypassing ULURP.

"Listening has also helped us avoid some of the more egregious impacts of the Moses era. Despite creating 130 million square feet of commercial and residential space, three new sports arenas, a convention center, a new subway line, and 2400 acres of parks, we will displace only 410 residences and 718 businesses." (Atlantic Yards would displace 410 residents.)

"I think it's clear we've taken the best of Robert Moses's omelet recipe, left out the worst of it, and come up with a recipe all our own that works, one that is enabling New York to get things done, this time for the 21st century." He concluded that the administration’s initiatives could be called “Making Omelets Without Breaking Eggs.” The crowd at the New York Academy of Medicine (next to the Museum of the City of New York) gave him hearty applause.

How does Doctoroff's formulation stand up regarding Atlantic Yards? Well, the number of people directly displaced would be relatively low and only a few buildings of historic merit would be demolished. But the broken eggs might be more subtle: ruinous traffic, overcrowded subways, increased crowd and traffic noise in residential areas, not enough open space for the population, and blighting interim surface parking lots—all the consequence of a development that even architect Frank Gehry admits is out of scale. (Doctoroff cited the use of "density bonuses" to build infrastructure and affordable housing; I've called the Atlantic Yards project a privately-negotiated such bonus.)

Global warming

Doctoroff got a cordial corrective from author Tony Hiss, who observed that “thinking big… is a subject we haven’t quite got our mind around.” He suggested that the threat of global warming meant big challenges regarding parks and public transit.

And rather than credit Moses for helping New York endure until it could grow, Hiss pointed to Frederick Law Olmsted, the great landscape designer behind Central Park (and Prospect Park).

Anthony Coscia, chairman of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, addressed a slightly different angle, the importance of regional consensus—a topic upon which Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, concurred.

Moses's "contempt"

But in between Coscia and Yaro came Majora Carter, founder and executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, who, just as she did on the Brian Lehrer Show on Wednesday, offered a corrective to Moses revisionism. A black woman on a panel with five white men (including moderator James Russell), Carter began by noting the irony of honoring Moses on the first day of Black History Month, given that his "contempt for black people is well-documented and still felt today.”

And she took on the question of whether the omelets could have broken differently. A planner and builder sensitive to community concerns, she said, “could’ve done much better, and with much less human fallout,” given the disinvestments and disregard for some communities that lay in his wake. She said Moses could not be credited for Central Park or Macombs Dam Park, "currently being destroyed to make way for the new Mosesesque new Yankee Stadium."

"It was also Moses, let's remember, who pushed hard for a highway through Washington Square Park. Where would SoHo or the West Village or TriBeCa or Chinatown be if his plans for the Lower Manhattan Expressway had actualy been realized?" She cited "the mile and a quarter stake in the ground called the Sheridan," an expressway to nowhere in the Bronx that community groups aim to have decommissioned for community development.

“Some argue that Moses was not a racist” but merely a product of his time, she said. “People we can trust like [biographer Robert] Caro and [community planner] Ron Shiffman who encountered Moses personally attest to his prejudices and his ability and willingness to act on them,” she said. (Caro wrote The Power Broker, the monumental 1974 biography to which the revisionists are reacting.)

"Wall Street mentality"

"I'm old enough to remember when my neighborhood was a walk-to-work kind of community," citing the aroma of a bakery, she said, adding, "Now I walk in my neighborhood and get the lovely aroma from a sewage sludge power plant... and about 60,000 diesel truck trips."

"It's important to let history be our guide, because when terms like 'blight' get thrown around, it doesn't mean 'Let's fix the problem for the poor people we have now;' it's called 'Let's get poor people out so that the powers that be can push their projects that they want to see so developers can make a lot of money.'"

"Any time we think it's OK to sacrifice one demographic for another, we are making a deal with the devil," she said. "That's the kind of ideology that says 'It has to be big' and assumes that a few powerful and well-connected individuals know what's best, diverting the free market for themselves and their friends."

And she didn’t let Doctoroff off the hook, criticizing the “Wall Street mentality holding sway today” that’s disconnected from communities. "It doesn't value the ability of an organically developed community to care for its people, like the proximity of a grandmother" who takes care of kids for a mom. "Regardless of your economic class, a living wage manufacturing job kind of looks like a liability on a spreadsheet, it's way too messy."

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and Related Companies CEO Steve Ross, she said, “aren't rich because they've really looked out for the little guy. They don’t need handouts from government. I want government money used for things like clean air, better transit, good education, and a positive quality of life for all New Yorkers.”

"And the only way to do that is to listen, to really, really listen.” The room erupted with applause.

"Backroom deals"

Carter praised the Bloomberg administration for thinking about sustainability and solid waste management, but "those are exceptions and not the rule when it comes to big trophy projects. Whether they're stadiums, malls, or jails, backroom deals are made." When people protest, she said, they're told they "don't understand," and administrators "know what's in the best interest of the city."

"Do any of you walk around and say, 'Gosh, we need another big box store here--y'know, let's forget about the small retail base'? Or do you say, 'We just need one more stadium in this town'...?"

She described how her agency and its partners "have created an inspiring vision for a Bronx eco-industrial park," using recycled materials, offering jobs and development "in a community that handles more than a third of the city's trash, tons of asthma, 25 percent unemployment.... But that vision is now under eminent threat from a 2000-bed jail that the city wants to build on that same site."

"Educated, happy, healthy people in supported families," she said, her voice nearly breaking, "is the best alternative to incarceration."

"If I have a hard time being listened to," said the MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" winner, "imagine what plenty of other people have to deal with." Big change is happening in many smaller ways, she said, "instead of one megaproject."

She closed: "It's taken decades for climb out of a hole made by a handful of individuals who looked at communities and the people in them as obstacles. The lesson to be learned from Moses is that these communities are smarter, kinder, more rational, and their interests are truly sustainable ones with an intuitive sense of the long-term health of the city.” The crowd gave her even more applause than they did Doctoroff.

Listening to the neighbors

Yaro, speaking next, offered a corrective to Doctoroff’s declaration of 40 years of stasis. Rather, he said, under each mayor since Ed Koch—who was present in the audience and got an ovation after Doctoroff pointed to him—the city had moved ahead.

“We’ve got to get better at respecting the needs of every neighborhood," Yaro acknowledged. "But the fundamentals of New York are actually in pretty good shape.”

He cited the importance of the civic community--"our job is to stay with the program, to make sure that this generation of public works, this generation of new affordable housing development, this generation of parks and playgrounds and all the other civic improvements that are being discussed now, that we see them through, to make sure that the next mayor does as good a job as the last." (Most of those are elements, in some form, of the Atlantic Yards project, which is, nonetheless, mainly a luxury housing project.)

Better involvement?

Moderator Russell declared, “I’m very much in favor of the level and scale of some of the initiatives… but we still rely too much on the one-way public hearing model, we don't involve people together, working out problems.” He cited the balkanized discussions about Ground Zero, such as with historic preservationists and surviving families.

He continued, "When we do have noisy activism, we kind of buy people off with Community Benefits Agreements." (He didn't offer specifics, but the new Columbia CBA suggests distinct contrasts with the Atlantic Yards CBA, the first in the city.)

Doctoroff, already more affable than the unbending Bloomberg, acknowledged, “I think it’s continuing to evolve.” He said that the mayor’s new project for long-term sustainability was predicated on stated goals, town meetings, a "spectacular" interactive web site, and an evolving plan. “I think we are learning to listen much better," he said. "There’s a limit--at some point, y'know, you just have to move ahead. But we really, I think, are getting better at it.”

(Contrast that with Bloomberg’s 1/23/04 statement: You can’t “wait until;” you do things when there’s an opportunity.)

Yaro observed, "This business of gaining public support is not a frill, it's not an afterthought, and it's the key, I think, Dan, to all of these successful projects."

“Yeah," countered Carter, a bit wearily. "The interesting thing about listening is you have to do it openly and not have a predetermined idea set.” She said the sustainability concept was good "but there's got to be a bigger effort;" the marketing campaign for the Olympics, she said, was an example of the city's willing to invest in communication.

"We are trying to reach out--we won't get it perfect," said Doctoroff, noting that the city had placed a 2030 plan brochure in every home-delivered newspaper in the city. "This isn't just about big projects," he said, noting that "we spent a year with a task force in Majora's neighborhood." Even in Hunts Point, he said, "as you know, there are big divisions about, on the one hand, environmental issues, versus having more jobs."

"That’s not true, Dan, I'm sorry,” she shot back. “We like jobs. We also want to breathe.” Applause.

"I think you know that we've been very, very sensitive to that," Doctoroff responded, "and we worked together for a very long time to try and come with a plan that satisfied everybody. Yes, at some point, we're going to have to deal with: where do we put a jail? On the other hand, we also are working with the people in the community to move into noxious location a prison barge that everyone has objected to. We're trying to get rid of waste transfer stations. We are trying to deal with the issues. Unfortunately, there are lots of things in this city that nobody wants in their own communities and we're trying the best we can do deal with them."

And that was it—no time for questions from the crowd.

Doctoroff on AY

I caught up with Doctoroff after the panel to ask him a little about Atlantic Yards. "The question that comes up, listening to the talk about consultation," I said, "is that a lot of people in Brooklyn think there hasn't been enough. And you say you're getting better at it with the 2030 [plan]--how do you place Atlantic Yards in the paradigm?"

"Atlantic Yards, obviously, followed a state process, and that has a different set of rules," he responded.

"Doctoroff's Law," I riposted, referencing his earlier formulation, “The degree of difficulty in completing a public project is a mathematical function of the number of governmental entities involved."

(So Atlantic Yards was a state project, and the city had followed the letter of the law. But earlier in the session, Hiss cited the fate of Park West Village, a Moses development where the original covenants are expiring, allowing development to encroach on half the remaining open space. “Not breaking eggs,” Hiss said, “would be the city involving itself even though it’s not required.” The same might have been said about Atlantic Yards and ULURP.)

Doctoroff responded, "Look, I think we have certainly come around to the view that, generally speaking, more public input is a good thing. The question is: where do you draw the line? That's an issue that will continue to be discussed over time."


I said, "Someone brought up the issue of CBA, a Community Benefits Agreements, whether it's buying people off. I know there's a significant difference between the Atlantic Yards CBA and the Columbia [one], where there's actually an LDC [Local Development Corporation]. Have you come up with a paradigm for how CBAs should be?"

"Well, I don't think we have yet," he said. "On the one hand, what's the line between--where a project legitimately impacts a community versus using the political process to demand concessions from a developer or project sponsor. It's a very fuzzy line, one that we continue to explore."

[Note: this was updated on 2/3/07 with additional quotes.]