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The RPA on AY: we must do better at "city-making"

An essay in the Regional Plan Association's (RPA) current Spotlight on the Region cites Atlantic Yards as a microcosm not only of big-time development and politics in New York City, but of the often erroneous ways we are building our cities throughout the U.S.

The issue, writes Rob Lane, the RPA's director of Regional Design Programs, is whether Atlantic Yards is simply a project or something much more dramatic, an example of "city-building.”

A “project,” Lane suggests, usually can be built in three to five years, which means that developers and government overseers can maintain continuity in terms of planning, funding, and oversight.

By contrast, projects that represent city-making can take many years. (Indeed, Atlantic Yards is officially projected to take a decade, but even supporters estimate 15 or 20 years.) So they demand “different mechanisms… to insure that a part of a city is designed and built well.”

AY process

Lane writes:
The larger questions raised by Atlantic Yards are not whether one likes Frank Ghery’s architecture (he will probably design only a few of the buildings), whether Forest City Ratner has the public’s interest at heart (why would we expect it to?), or even whether one agrees with the scale and composition of the development (my organization, Regional Plan Association, supports the major elements of the plan). Looking forward, do we have a development model that will lead to better cities, as opposed to better projects?

Note that developer Bruce Ratner has required Gehry to design the whole project, even though Gehry said he'd wanted to involve other architects. Landscape architect Laurie Olin predicted other architects would be brought in, only to be criticized by his patron, Forest City Ratner executive Jim Stuckey.

Lane continues:
The process that led to Atlantic Yards had two basic flaws, both pointing to the need for a more vigorous role by that much maligned institution, government. There was too little government planning and public input in the early stages of the project, and too little public oversight for the lengthy period in which the development will take place.

Many agree that there was too little planning and input; I wonder what Lane thinks of the Empire State Development Corporation's belated attempts to beef up oversight, such as by establishing a new position of ombudsperson.

He continues:
The result is a development that has much of the housing and commercial development that the region needs—and that is appropriate for the location—but an inadequate plan for public transportation and parks to support it. Similarly, it tries to compensate for the lack of continuous public oversight with a set of overly rigid design guidelines that cannot accommodate changes in architects, market demand or neighborhood needs.

I think Lane misdescribes the project somewhat, given that a paltry amount of office space is projected now, just 336,000 square feet, which would be eclipsed enormously by office development at Hudson Yards or around Penn Station, and office space goes begging in the heart of Downtown Brooklyn.

In other words, a project announced as having space for 10,000 office jobs around a transit hub has instead turned into an opportunity to build nearly 2000 luxury condos on top of the 4500 planned rentals, half of them subsidized.

Who's in charge?

Lane argues that we lack the political willpower to create the physical infrastructure—he cites roads and parks, but I’d add other mass transit—to help frame future development, instead leaving it to the private sector.

Moreover, he writes, “we also lack the capacity of government itself to even manage the private process we have farmed out.” (Indeed, note the role of AKRF, cited yesterday by the ESDC and by a panel on reforming the city's environmental review process.)

Raising taxes is not the solution, but Lane suggests models including congestion pricing, Battery Park City’s flexible design guidelines, and Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 sustainability effort.

Unmentioned is how PlaNYC points to a much more consultative way to develop over railyards. Earlier in his essay, Lane cites the "opening of bidding for the Far West Side rail yards;" by contrast, the Atlantic Yards project was announced not with bidding but the city and state behind the development.

The public has to pay

Lane concludes:
The question ultimately comes down to the public and the politicians. Both must be willing to shoulder more burdens, and more responsibility. In return, they will get a city that is more efficient, more beautiful, and more prosperous.

Of course, city-building will always be imperfect, and will be to some degree a process without a formal end. But this is far better than the alternative – turning the “city” into a collection of “projects” whose sum adds up to not much.

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