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Reconsiderations of Jane Jacobs lead inevitably to Atlantic Yards musings

In the midst of the Robert Moses revisionism, let's not forget the master builder's philosophical antagonist, Jane Jacobs. In February, City Planning Commission Chairperson Amanda Burden famously assured listeners that we now "plan from the ground up" and follow the principles of Jane Jacobs.

However, Burden had to explain her support for the not-so-ground-up Atlantic Yards, asserting , as if channeling Moses, "We’re a big city and we need big projects."

A few weeks later, Burden got an implicit comeuppance. Jacobs’ name is invoked “in some of the most erroneous situations,” Roberta Brandes Gratz, founder of the Center for the Living City at Purchase College, told the audience at a 3/7/07 symposium, Interpreting and Misinterpreting Jane Jacobs, at the Museum of the City of New York.

And, as the panel discussion continued, it inevitably focused on Atlantic Yards, the city's poster child for controversy over planning.

Misreading Jacobs

Gratz reminded listeners that Jacobs did not aim to impose her Greenwich Village street and neighborhood plan on others, just to remind them that cities must be understood via their components.

Yes, she said, Jacobs “abhorred big plans that wiped out viable communities and disrupted the urban fabric,” but also believed in thinking big when it came to schools, hospitals, libraries, and transit. Jacobs didn’t oppose change, just cataclysmic change, she said, and Jacobs does not need any revisionism.

Architecture professor Michael Sorkin, who invited Jacobs to New York City four years ago for the inaugural Lewis Mumford lecture, discussed how Jacobs is invoked more than followed. She’s “the patron saint of New Urbanism, which on one level she’d hate,” he asserted. (Here's the Congress for a New Urbanism and (update) a response from John Massengale.)

Burden’s Department of City Planning, he added, “is constantly identifying with Jane Jacobs as it proceeds to work in the style of Moses.” And the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s smaller-scale replacement for housing projects, Hope VI, is sterile, he contended.

Superblocks & AY

Still, Sorkin allowed for some complexity. While Stuyvesant Town, built during the Moses era, required the condemnation of thousands of dwellings and for years barred blacks, it has since been embraced and “was a very successful project by the end of the day.”

He even suggested we rethink superblocks. “New York City can tolerate a certain number of exceptions,” he said, citing Stuyvesant Town and the Penn South cooperatives. “Maybe we are misguided at attacking Atlantic Yards because of superblocks,” he added. (Here's criticism about AY superblocks from BrooklynSpeaks.)

Ron Shiffman, founder of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development, offered more than an architectural criticism of superblocks. “It means one entity controls the block, one building type,” he said. (Well, Frank Gehry is supposed to be using a mix of materials.)

“The problem is single ownership, decision-making, architect,” Shiffman continued. (Remember, Gehry has said he typically would recruit other architects to help out, but developer Bruce Ratner wouldn’t let him. Shiffman said at the recent UNITY 2007 planning session that multiple developers would finish a project much faster.)

Looking at AY

Shiffman praised Bloomberg for embarking on the ambitious PlaNYC 2030 effort, but warned that it “could be an utter disaster” if we make the mistake—and here, Atlantic Yards must’ve been his prime example--of misusing eminent domain or marketing barrier-like projects with the images of small-scale neighborhoods. (Shiffman's on the advisory board of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn.)

Shiffman has made similar comments since PlaNYC was issued:
Proposals for decking our rail yards need to be carefully reviewed and informed by the communities that surround them. The cost of that decking should not create housing that is unaffordable for the average New Yorker or lead to densities that are too high for the social, economic and environmental infrastructure needed to sustain them

Sorkin commented on AY, “The most singularly disgusting aspect of this is the way it circumvents democratic principles.” Bloomberg, he added, “tends to measure urban success on basis of bottom line.”

Shiffman picked that up: “We look at everything built as development instead of thinking of them in qualitative terms.”

Eminent domain

Panelist Margaret Zeidler, a developer in Toronto—the kind “we’d love to have here,” commented Gratz—pronounced herself surprised at the discussion in New York about eminent domain. Canada doesn’t have it; “we have expropriation, but only for public use,” she said, adding, “It’s surprising, we [Canadians] think of ourselves as being quite socialist.”

Asked about the Supreme Court’s 2005 Kelo eminent domain decision, Shiffman pointed out that, in the two big projects in New York, Columbia University’s expansion in Harlem and Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards plan, the argument is blight, not economic development, the justification for the taking in Kelo.

Blight, he said, is “in the eye of beholder.” For Atlantic Yards, it’s the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s property--the 8.5 acre Vanderbilt Yard itself--that is in disarray, not the entire 22-acre site, he emphasized. The question of blight, as we learned in court last week, is highly contested.