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Our lagging infrastructure, the mismatch with municipalities, and the AY (bad) example

A bridge collapse in Minneapolis and a steam-pipe explosion in Manhattan serve as a jumping-off point for a lengthy New Republic essay by architecture critic Sarah Williams Goldhagen, headlined American Collapse (subscribers only).

And, yes, Atlantic Yards eventually surfaces as a bad example of a public-private partnership that skirts real public needs. Both she and Joel Kotkin, an analyst writing in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, point to an unhealthy municipal focus on sports facilities and other sideshows.

She writes:
Headlines screeching news of these two horrifying events have replaced, temporarily, the usual newspaper rhythm of weekly incantations announcing this or that city's plans for adorning itself with a new stadium, public park, or luminescent museum--announcements that often serve to distract the public's attention from the silent scourge afflicting this country's viscera. One pipe explosion and one bridge collapse just might be enough to rouse the public to the news that America's metropolitan regions are in serious trouble. Bridges, utilities, and flood-prevention systems, whether publicly or privately owned, are grossly neglected…

While these matters are usually discussed as problems related to localities or specific pieces of infrastructure, she warns that a balkanized approach is dangerous, and that we should "dispense absolutely with the dichotomy of city versus suburb" but rather think about metropolitan regions.

In his more brief commentary yesterday headlined Road Work author Kotkin similarly looks at our misplaced priorities:
Rather than deal with the expensive and difficult task of retrofitting the sinews of commerce and communication — bridges, tunnels, roads, rail lines, ports, sewers, and drainage systems — America's urban powers focus on the ephemeral and the glitzy. They emphasize not brick and mortar, but sports stadia, convention centers, arts palaces, dubiously effective new light-rail lines, hotels and condo projects.

Of course, ribbon cuttings for such facilities and announcements of new sports teams tend to provide primo p.r. opportunities for elected officials and the private entities they choose to partner with--witness the Nets jerseys unveiled for the initial Atlantic Yards press conference.

Infrastructure issues

Infrastructure, Williams Goldhagen points out, bridges cities, suburbs, and beyond. (Indeed, why is it that the Washington, DC Metro extends into Maryland and Virginia but the New York City Transit Authority subways don’t connect with New Jersey’s PATH trains?)

She writes:
Infrastructure is one crucial point at which politics and architecture merge. A country's physical plant should be front and center in the policy agendas of its public officials, and it should be front and center in the intellectual and professional agendas of the professional stewards of its built environment. For many reasons, this is not the case in the United States... But infrastructure should be defined not by what it looks like, and not by who designs it or who pays for it, and not by who builds it or actually uses it. It should be defined by whom it is meant to serve.

And much of our infrastructure is in lousy shape. According to the latest (2005) "Infrastructure Report Card" by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the highest grade for any of fifteen categories was C, while ten categories—“including drinking water, waste-water management, navigable waterways, transit, and schools--received scores in the D range.”

How did we get here?

She compares the U.S. to metropolitan regions rapidly developing countries in Asia, “and the gross inferiority of America's physical infrastructure is immediately apparent.” (Indeed; go to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and there’s a speedy, spiffy “train to the plane.”) But even Europe or Canada surpass us; she points to Barcelona’s revamp in preparation for the 1992 Summer Olympics and Vancouver's effort to create a 24-hour city, with the continent’s fastest-growing residential downtown.

But infrastructure is expensive, and hard to plan; she points to recent exhibitions in New York on Robert Moses, which show how difficult it is to plan and coordinate public investment involving federal, state, and local initiatives. Voters don’t like to pay for expensive projects, and thus elected officials don’t like to associate themselves with them. Costly maintenance provides even less political advantage. (So a second-term mayor like Mike Bloomberg, whose PlaNYC 2030 does look ahead, shows unusual foresight.)

Williams Goldhagen writes:
Even in the heyday of American infrastructure-building, from 1930 to 1970, it took an imperious wheeler-dealer such as Robert Moses to take maximal advantage of the funds that the federal government was making available to American cities: owing to Moses, for example, New York City received more than twice the Title I funds for slum clearance of any other city in the country. Robert Caro, Moses’s biographer, who was simultaneously fascinated and revolted by Moses’s labyrinthine anti-democratic conception of his calling, conceded in The Power Broker that “the problem of constructing large-scale public works in a crowded urban setting, where such works impinge upon the lives of or displace thousands of voters, is one that democracy has not yet solved.” American democracy, that is.

Since the 1970s, she writes, it’s gotten worse, since the structure of states and municipalities doesn’t fit in managing a cross-border metropolitan area. (Indeed; how much could Newark, linked into the New York City Transit Authority, contribute to fighting the regional affordable housing problem?) And the federal government has gotten out of the infrastructure business.

She writes:
Shouldn't we think about our country's physical plant in terms not that different from our legal and regulatory systems in general--as a necessary foundation for the social and economic health and growth of this country, requiring substantial federal leadership and funding? We need a national infrastructure for infrastructure.

Moses, Jacobs, and beyond

She also laments “the public's lack of faith” in the expertise of “city planners, urban designers, architects, landscape architects, and civil engineers,” contrasting it to our willingness to trust other experts like lawyers and doctors. She considers some of the blame justified, some not.

She writes:
It began with the widely publicized failures of the federally funded slum clearance and urban renewal programs of the 1960s, which nurtured a crude morality tale of the consequences of governmental intervention in the country's physical plant, a David-and-Goliath melodrama played out in the standoff between a feisty little lady named Jane Jacobs and an outsize predatory "expert" named Robert Moses. An overly simplistic and misleading fable was born, according to which government should keep its grubby hands off our cities. Nearly half a century later, this legend continues to dominate public thinking about how our country's infrastructure should be managed.

Today's city planners are seen as clueless and well-meaning bureaucrats at best, and as anti-democratic elitists at worst. Architects, landscape architects, and urban designers (including the many who do not merit the slander) are depicted as divas who care more about fancy forms than about the people who live in their buildings or the clients who build them. Expertise in the built environment is often held in public ridicule. As a result, folk wisdom has it that it is up to the public-spirited citizen--the community board activist, the local environmental review agency, the historic preservation commission--to stop them: thus unwittingly validating a salient quotation that was prominently displayed in one of the Moses exhibitions. "The critics," he once said, "build nothing."

And this of course is the ready reaction to Atlantic Yards critics and opponents, even labeling them NIMBYs, though a group that organized the alternative UNITY plan for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard could hardly be called NIMBY.

Williams Goldhagen allows that public mistrust “is not wholly misplaced” and suggests that two “glaringly inadequate” visions dominate architecture and urban design. She writes:
The CNU [Congress for New Urbanism], inspired by the ideas in Jacobs's The Death and Life of American Cities, promotes a more or less sensible set of principles for urban development that are now commonly accepted: zoning should nurture a mix of commercial, retail, and residential uses; density is preferable to sprawl; nodal communities are preferable to bedroom suburbs; infrastructural planning should prioritize mass transit over the automobile; and so on.

But most CNU examples, she suggests, such as Seaside and Celebration, Florida, don't work. She calls the other option, promulgated by Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture, "little more than developer-friendly urbanism." Her one hope is James Corner, of Field Operations in New York City, which "is committed to an interdisciplinary approach to the infrastructural, ecological, and social problems facing metropolitan regions," but so far has only proposed rather than executed some major projects.

It's disappointing that she didn't try to address the New York City Department of City Planning's efforts, which are extensive--and, of course, omit Atlantic Yards.

Plans and privatization

On paper, she suggests, Bloomberg's PlaNYC 2030 and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's Central Area Plan for Chicago, both look good. But on the ground, “much of what is being done is pernicious.” She points to the willingness of city and even state governments to sell off parts of their public infrastructures—roadways, water systems, etc.—to private bidders.

While she doesn't mention it, Forest City Ratner's plan to provide a new Vanderbilt Yard for the MTA as part of a larger development, rather than have the MTA identify its infrastructure needs first, shows another example of a developer taking the lead.

One worthy private effort, she suggests, is the recently opened Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, a public amenity funded almost entirely through philanthropy—and thus not a replicable model.

(I wrote about the park in January. Photo from the Seattle Art Museum.)

The desperation of Atlantic Yards

And then she finds Atlantic Yards the poster child of a public-private partnership gone wrong, though I think she focuses on the wrong thing. She writes:
More typical are the so-called public-private partnerships to which desperate cities across the country have been increasingly turning since the 1970s. One such project is Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn. Headlines on this project have predictably run this way: Brooklyn teams up with the developer Bruce Ratner to create a major new project that will contain private residences (which will profit the developer) and new public amenities. This project will jump-start the economic revitalization of downtown Brooklyn. Then a few years go by. New headlines: New York City has granted Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner X, Y, and Z additional zoning, or land use, or other concessions. These concessions threaten to severely limit public access to the project. Yet if the concessions are not granted, the developer may pull out, to the economic detriment of the city. If Atlantic Yards is built as it is now envisioned, its public spaces are likely to suffer the same fate as those "privately owned public spaces" in Manhattan that Jerold Kayden meticulously documented in his book Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience.

The failure to propose truly public space is hardly the greatest vulnerability of the Atlantic Yards plan, and Forest City Ratner has not publicly threatened to pull out without getting additional subsidies or concessions.

Rather, the still-fuzzy accounting of subsidies, the failure to plan in ways PlaNYC 2030 now recommends, and the questionable claims of blight are among the bigger issues raised by AY.

Who's responsible?

The privatization of infrastructure, Williams Goldhagen warns, leaves bottom-line focused companies to ignore larger needs and points to a larger political responsibility:
Infrastructure is the classic public good that the free market does not and cannot provide. On the scale that is necessary, only the federal government can make the difference.

...We need a National Infrastructure Agency... At the very least Congress should establish a federal line-item capital budget, as most other developed countries have, which would help to reduce the perpetual scanting of long-term budgetary needs in favor of short-term ones. State officials should demand federal assistance to address their infrastructural needs. Municipal officials should find the legal and political mechanisms... that would allow them to work in concert with, rather than in competition with, their counterparts in neighboring communities. Leading design professionals should refuse to be merely producers of high-end cultural icons and luxury housing, and make themselves relevant to every part of the infrastructure challenge, and work to re-instate the public's trust in their authority.

The public good

She concludes:
Surely ordinary Americans can recognize this crisis: they drive on it, cursing the traffic, every day. The ribbon of concrete and steel washing into the Mississippi River; the chasm on West 41st Street in New York (or the larger one--very different in origin, to be sure--that remains at New York City's Ground Zero); the boarded-up acres of urban disaster in New Orleans that Hurricane Katrina left behind; the billions of gallons of raw sewage released into our waterways every year; the stupendously mediocre Rose Kennedy Greenway; the bridges and the highways closed because of some spectacular failure or the need for emergency repairs--all these disasters are only the most publicly visible evidence of what happens, or does not happen, when policymakers and design professionals fail to effectively use their power for the oldest and best purpose of all, America's public good.

Brooklyn, as the Empire State Development Corporation has declared, would seem to be getting some elements of the public good via the Atlantic Yards plan: a new subway entrance, a new railyard, affordable housing, open space. However, as Williams Goldhagen's essay suggests, a developer-led process may be enough to convince local decisionmakers, but it may not be a full assessment of community needs, or the appropriate balance of costs and benefits.

However, as she also suggests, an inability or unwillingness to plan and fund projects can lead communities to turn to developers. But that's not the fate for all of New York City and the balance is different elsewhere; the Columbia University expansion and the proposed Coney Island development are both proceeding with greater weight for community and civic skepticism.

Atlantic Yards, which seems to be popping up more regularly as a negative example, seems to have already taught officials some lessons.


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