Thomas Bender's Power Broken: To build great cities, we need more citizen input - not another Robert Moses (reg. required), in the Fall issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, takes off from the recent Robert Moses exhibits and companion book to muse on the way forward.
Before doing so, Bender suggests that recent projects, including Times Square redevelopment and Battery Park City, contradict claims of stasis, and notes that "the recently approved Atlantic Yards project, a huge mixed-use development in central Brooklyn including an arena for professional basketball, proceeds, after a great deal of public discussion and review (albeit a controversial one) by government bureaucracies."
In Streetsblog, Brad Aaron says that "Bender missteps by citing the progression of Atlantic Yards and Hudson Yards as rebuttals to the Mosesist ethic." I'm not sure they're as much rebuttals to the latter but rather, as Bender writes, to "the supposition of urban paralysis."
But Aaron's closer to the target in observing, "It would be difficult to find many people, if any at all, from the public advocacy arena who would say Atlantic Yards has been anything other than a developer-driven monster."
A democratic path forward
Bender suggests a path forward:
Instead of talking about a new construction czar for cities, we should be talking about democratic institutions for managing current and future development. We need deliberative planning tools that work better than the grab-bag of clumsy mechanisms for public participation we have now, which are rightly resented by developers and neighborhoods, if for different reasons. Transparency and responsibility–with respect to public financing in its various forms–are fundamental. Representative institutions also are necessary, ones that organize dialogue at the different scales of the neighborhood, the borough, the city, and perhaps even the region. City planning should understand itself as, ultimately, the work of city-making rather than simply the agency of growth and development. The mechanisms of citizen empowerment must be clearly defined, and that power must be appropriate to the role envisioned.
Remember, the Regional Plan Association's (RPA) Rob Lane in May cited Atlantic Yards as an example of "city-making"--a multi-year project that required much more input beforehand and a mechanism for oversight.
Listening to the City
In March, Thomas Wright of the Regional Plan Association (RPA) called the RPA-sponsored deliberation exercise for the World Trade Center site, Listening to the City, an example of a new model for public input that transcends the rancor and posturing of a typical public hearing.
Bender seems to agree:
To accomplish that, some institutional innovation is necessary. We need to think more imaginatively about future forums, perhaps turning to creative uses of new technologies. Without making too much of it, let me mention a recent example. When the future of Ground Zero was still undecided, a group of 80 civic organizations led by the Regional Plan Association, using a novel technology of networked laptops and some kind of sorting program, brought together in two meetings a few thousand representative New Yorkers to deliberate on guidelines for rebuilding.... The preferences that emerged from our table and others were then fashioned into a set of design directives. The results were fairly general, but they pointed toward a plausible urban aspiration for an area of the city that had evolved into something both more and less than a financial center. A memorial was the highest priority, with some disagreement as to whether it should be figurative or abstract. Mixed use for the area was strongly favored–offices, street retail, residence, and cultural. Anything suggesting a new "freedom tower" was rejected.
Listening to the City, by the way, was run by an organization called AmericaSpeaks, which "designs and facilitates large-scale town meetings on public policy issues." Did the founders of BrooklynSpeaks, the coalition of groups that aim to significantly change but not kill Atlantic Yards, choose a deliberate echo?
But who listened?
Bender, however, notes the flaws in the Listening to the City plan:
This was in many ways a model for public participation. The problem was that nobody with power was listening; a non-accountable, appointed authority made all of the decisions. The result–an abstract memorial, a "freedom tower," maximization of office space–was Moses all over again...
(In contrast, see Benjamin Hemric's critical comments below.)
In his chronicle Up from Zero, about the contested process to rebuild at the World Trade Center site, architecture critic Paul Goldberger offers measured praise for the Listening to the City process. Describing the first meeting, where participants sought a consensus vision of Lower Manhattan a decade hence, he writes:
Out of all of this, not surprisingly, nothing particularly fresh or different emerged. The groups favored mixed-use, lively neighborhoods and attention to both the commemorative aspects of a memorial and the commercial aspects of the city. The conclusions of Listening to the City were earnest and well-meaning, if unexceptional, but the event did help to move public sentiment closer to compromise between the extreme voices that had predominated earlier in the process, when the discussion was polarized between those who wanted Ground Zero to be entirely a memorial and those who felt that restoring the city's commercial life was the only priority that mattered on the site.
The second meeting, a much larger gathering of some 4000 people at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, participants looked askance at the six plans presented, even as Alexander Garvin, an academic and planner working at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, insisted, "We are not talking about architecture here--we are talking about site plans and principles."
Goldberger points out that participants wanted to restore the street grid, which "seemed in a way to represent the ultimate triumph of Jane Jacobs over Robert Moses." (Indeed, in the New York Observer this week, Matthew Schuerman writes about how "Greenwich Street" has become the choice address in the new grid.)
To Goldberger, the effort represents a significant step forward from the dominant Moses-era mode of neighborhood protest in response to ambitious projects:
At Listening to the City, they programmed themselves to say yes, to ask for more vision, not less... It may have taken the extraordinary circumstances of September 11, or it may have been part of a broader evolution....
What if, in Brooklyn
In Brooklyn, could there have been such an exercise? What would the "site" have been, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's 8.5-acre Vanderbilt Yard or Forest City Ratner's 21-acre (later 22-acre) "footprint"? If an arena was at issue, should alternate sites have be considered, like Coney Island?
How trade off density and cost, market-rate and subsidized units? Even the post-Atlantic Yards UNITY plan workshops came up with a design for the railyard that proved not completely feasible, at least if you consider the subsequent Extell bid, which implied more density.
The most recent UNITY exercise suggested some very affordable housing--but how to pay for it? (Stay tuned for a revamped UNITY plan to be released on Sep. 24.)
Those in the public who support Forest City Ratner's vision believe that the benefits are worth the costs; opponents say the opposite. But how to evaluate those costs and benefits without consideration of larger issues like the overall opportunities for density and affordable housing in the city and borough?
At the very least, though, some competing plans or even frameworks could have dispelled the "Atlantic Yards or nothing" meme that still persists. (Imagine if the process had begun with an RFP from the MTA, rather than have the agency issue one belatedly, 18 months after the project was announced.)
And the participation of a wide range of civic organizations, planners, and architects could have engendered public discussion about the values and tradeoffs at hand, rather than the more limited perspectives of Forest City Ratner and its Community Benefit Agreement "negotiation" partners. (Remember, Bertha Lewis of ACORN, whose role, understandably, is to advocate for affordable housing, said she couldn't address environment, density, and traffic.)
Might a Brooklyn version of "Listening to the City," for example, suggested an override of antiquated guidelines regarding parking and instead called for many fewer parking spaces?
Instead, on 12/10/03, we got a press conference in which top elected officials announced their support for Atlantic Yards. Mayor Mike Bloomberg said, "I can just tell you that this administration will put on a full-court press for the approval of this project."
The next day, the New York Times's starchitecture critic, Herbert Muschamp, declared, "A Garden of Eden grows in Brooklyn." It seems clear in retrospect that he was not listening to the city, nor even to the neighborhood.
There's a balance, obviously between critical judgment and public consensus, between public planning and public participation. Still, it's notable that Atlantic Yards has, in Lane's example, the silence of PlaNYC, and much public rhetoric, emerged as an example of what not to do.