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Planner Garvin: UDC (ESDC) has "truly amazing powers"

On the day of the federal court hearing in the Atlantic Yards eminent domain case, let's consider the history of the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC). For that, turn to Alexander Garvin's The American City : What Works, What Doesn't, which has become the definitive academic text for students of urban planning and, despite a few flaws (read the reviews at, is well worth a read by the informed layperson.

Garvin, who teaches at Yale, has a particular expertise in New York City, having served on the City Planning Commission, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and, notably, managing director for planning of NYC2012, the committee that aimed to bring the summer Olympics to New York. He has a particularly close relationship to Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Dan Doctoroff, whose vision he credits for the (unsuccessful) effort to win the 2012 Olympics.

So Garvin's an insider, and his comments about the ESDC's predecessor, the New York State Urban Development Corporation (UDC), deserve notice.

"Truly amazing powers"

He describes (p. 357) the late-1960s genesis of the Roosevelt Island development:
There were no acquisition problems because the site was owned by the city of New York and no political problems because its developer, the New York State Urban Development Corporation (UDC), was a superagency with truly amazing powers.
(Emphasis added)

The UDC had been Governor Nelson Rockefeller's response to the riots that erupted in cities across the country during the mid-1960s. The statute creating this superagency was enacted in 1968. As written by Edward Logue, its first president and chief executive officer, the legislation provided the UDC with powers that could overcome every difficulty he had run into, first as New Haven's development administrator and then as chairman of the Boston Redevelopment Authority... The UDC could condemn land, hire expert professional staff, ignore zoning and building regulations, and even issue tax-exempt bonds to finance development. Its most remarkable power was the ability to do all this without obtaining the approval of any other city, county, or state agency.

Removing frictional blight

Garvin writes (p. 262):
Another approach for eliminating slums calls for removing impediments to private investment. The argument is that if unsightly structures, incompatible land uses, and noxious activities blighting an area are removed, neighboring property owners will make improvements, developers will purchase and rehabilitate or build, and banks will lend the money to pay for this. Therefore, government should acquire these blighted properties and resell them to developers who will execute the city's renewal plan.

It's hard to argue that Prospect Heights and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard are slums, but the cost of building a platform over the yard and moving the railyard functions had been an impediment to building. But the Atlantic Yards project is not "the city's renewal plan"--and that's part of the court case.

Planning strategy

In a section titled "Housing Redevelopment as a Planning Strategy" (p. 276), Garvin writes about major developments, though not quite a mixed-use development like Atlantic Yards, not to mention one like Queens West to be built on essentially empty land. Still, it's notable that redevelopment--at least of housing-only developments--was seen as a catalyst rather than an end in itself:
By itself, redevelopment will not eliminate slums. It must be accompanied by strategies for the survival of the new housing still surrounded by uncleared slums and for the improvement of untouched older housing still occupied by slum dwellers.

It has been years since anybody seriously proposed a major housing redevelopment project. It is time we recognized that redevelopment can revitalize appropraite sections of our cities. The errors of the past need not be repeated. In the right area, clearance and redevelopment can be a catalyst that triggers genuine urban renewal. But redevelopment is desirable only if the costs (in terms of disrupted lives and businesses) are low and it truly results in a good environment.

(The cost of directly disrupted lives and businesses would certainly be much less than in Robert Moses's time. Whether Atlantic Yards would result in a "good environment" is hotly disputed.)

...Once we accept the fact that clearance does not necessarily eliminate slum problems and redevelopment does not necessarily increase the supply of affordable housing, and once we understand that its primary utility is as a method for stimulating additional private development that would not otherwise occur, we can make housing redevelopment an effective device for fixing cities. Nothing more is needed because governments already possess all the powers they need for eliminating the bad environment.