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We are all Jacobsian now--but what about process?

At the reception and awards ceremony Monday night at the Morgan Library and Museum in honor of the Jane Jacobs Medals, a few hundred New Yorkers were present, among them architects, journalists, designers, planners, developers, community activists, and curators. But only a handful, all elected or appointed city officials, were hailed from the lectern by Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin.

They were City Council President Christine Quinn; Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum; Empire State Development (ESDC) Downstate Chairman Patrick Foye; City Planning Commission (CPC) Chairwoman Amanda Burden; Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe (son of medal winner Barry Benepe); Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan; and Landmarks Preservation Commission Chairman Robert Tierney.

Given that the essentially pragmatic Jacobs was embraced by so many—see Francis Morrone’s deft essay in the New York Sun on the various constituencies that invoke her—and is such as an enduring urban thinker, it’s no surprise that these officials would show their respect, a little more than a year after her death and upon new awards in her honor. And each official likely has learned and deployed Jacobsian lessons, though some, like Sadik-Khan, seem more enlightened.

At some point, however, you can’t square Jane Jacobs with some of the projects the city supports, and Atlantic Yards is one exemplar. Gotbaum’s been supremely evasive on eminent domain. And Burden, while she knows minutely well the mixed-use mantra (a “b-market” outside the planned arena!), has been part of an orchestrated effort to advance the project, including a Potemkin CPC public meeting (not hearing). The ESDC and CPC have shepherded and supported a project that, while it has Jacobsian elements, would lack some others, like frequent streets or a diversity of buildings, crucial to Jacobs's vision of a healthy city.

Beyond the checklist

But that Jacobsian lens, and a simple checklist, isn’t enough in a city now confronting “over-success,” as the new exhibition Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York, which opened yesterday at the Municipal Art Society, should lead us to conclude. (I'll write more on the exhibit shortly. Note that, despite mention of Atlantic Yards in some reviews, such as in Metro and the New York Times, the exhibition, which is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, doesn't directly address AY. The accompanying book does touch on AY in several places.)

After all, Jacobs was writing nearly five decades ago, a tribune of the “foot people” in response to the ascendant “car people.” Times have changed. The brief film Saving the Sidewalks, broadcast last year on Channel 13 and shown at the event Monday, captures Jacobs as plainspoken, almost severe. She lived on a block that, as depicted its black-and-white photo, looked more like something out of Jacob Riis than the home of The Art of Cooking, the current ground-floor retail occupant in her old 555 Hudson Street address.

After all, the fight to preserve urbanism has in many ways been won, and new challenges have arisen. Writes New Yorker architectural critic Paul Goldberger in an essay in the book accompanying the exhibit, Block by Block, excerpted from his remarks at a celebration last year:
In some ways it has become too big and too gentrified to operate as Jacobs wanted it to. In her day, a fairly natural process gave us the city we love—the old, neighborhood-rich, pedestrian-oriented, exquisitely balanced New York—and she wisely saw that planning was not able to do much except upset this natural equilibrium. Today, however, the natural order of things gives us sprawl, gigantism, economic segregation, and homogeneous, dreary design. In Jacobs’s day, the intervention into organic urban growth was symbolized by Robert Moses. Today, the forces trying to intervene are those set in motion by Jane Jacobs herself.

The Jacobsian corruption

As he wrote in his book on Ground Zero, Goldberger in his remarks also reminded people how Jacobs has been used:
Who could have imagined that “mixed-use” would become not a sharp-eyed writer’s observation of what underlies a strong, organic urban fabric but a developer’s mantra? Who could have envisioned the day when politicians and developers promoting a gigantic football stadium beside the Hudson River would propose surrounding it with shops and caf├ęs, transforming it into an asset to the city’s street life? When that happened, I knew Jane Jacobs’s radical ideas had moved into the mainstream, where they could be corrupted by those who claim to follow them. So if there is any way to follow Jane Jacobs, it is to think of her as showing us not a physical model for city form but rather a perceptual model for skepticism...

Varieties of skepticism

Jacobsian skepticism could easily lead to criticism of the Atlantic Yards plan, but it could also lead to criticism of those—hardly a majority of opponents, given that they have spawned the alternative UNITY plan—who think the borough, and a major crossroads, shouldn’t change signficantly.

After all, even a Jacobs fan like Michael Sorkin suggests that the city can tolerate some superblocks. So, could the need for affordable housing, and the desire for an arena, overcome the failure to meet the Jacobsian elements of frequent streets and diverse buildings? Does “cataclysmic” money mean something different in 2007 than at the turn of the 1960s?

Process and participation

Those are reasonable questions, but I think they're trumped by another one: the importance of civic process and giving the community a voice (though not a veto). Writes co-curator Christopher Klemek in his essay:
No doubt, when facing today’s issues, many will always be tempted to ask, “What would Jane Jacobs say or do?” And were she still alive, Jacobs would certainly have plenty of advice to offer. (One of her last public interventions was a letter to the Bloomberg administration protesting the rezoning of Greenpoint/Williamsburg.) But, beyond having an opinion on any specific issue, she was consistently more concerned that all New Yorkers have a say—that they be vigilant and engaged citizens, demanding that their voices be heard and that their insights be considered….

Despite Burden’s claim that “we plan from the ground up,” such participation has been absent from Atlantic Yards. In his New York magazine article from August 2006, Chris Smith wrote that "it’s outrageous to see the absolute absence of democratic process. There’s been no point in the past four years at which the public has been given a meaningful chance to decide whether something this big and transformative should be built on public property."

And Foye's ESDC, while announcing several steps toward greater transparency, which even moderate AY critics deem insufficient, proceeds to twist history in defending its use of eminent domain, suggesting that the Civil Rights Era law establishing the agency, which called for "maximum private participation" in slum clean-up projects the agency initially funded itself, somehow anticipated the developer-driven Atlantic Yards project.

At the ceremony Monday, Jacobs medal winner Omar Freilla, founder of Green Worker Cooperative in the Bronx, in his acceptance speech, talked about how reading Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities “resonated with a lot of of what I’m feeling.” Jacobs bequeathed “a love of humanity and a love of democracy,” an inspiration to his own work for environmental justice and economic development, aiming to establish a facility to transform construction waste “green collar” jobs.

Freilla, however, challenged the general air of civic self-satisfaction. “Do we have a say in our lives and decisions?” he asked. The answer: infrequently. It was a bracing reminder of the importance of process and one that Jacobs, I’d imagine, would have applauded.

The Jacobsian DCP?

Burden's busy Department of City Planning (DCP) has its defenders. In a September 2006 essay published in City & Community, the magazine of the American Sociological Association, sociologist David Halle asked, Who Wears Jane Jacobs’s Mantle in Today’s New York City? (fee) and concluded, curiously enough:
Indeed, in today’s New York City it is, arguably, not usually local Community Boards but rather Mayor [Mike] Bloomberg’s Department of City Planning that is most faithfully implementing the spirit of Jane Jacobs and her classic. Despite its critique of contemporary planners, The Death and Life is a cry for better central planning, albeit a planning that recognizes and respects local and market-based characteristics of neighborhoods.

Halle reaches that conclusion after making some very good points but also choosing selective evidence. He notes wisely that both critics, like New York Times architecture critic, Nicolai Ourousoff, and acolytes, like the Villager newspaper covering her Greenwich Village, both misrepresented Jacobs as a conservator of the small scale rather than a champion of dynamism.

And, in his analysis of preservation battles in Greenwich Village, Halle suggests that local preservationists have invoked Jacobs and “vehemently opposed, and scorned if built,” works by several distinguished architects. So have organizations elsewhere in the city.

He reminds us that, in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs championed a mix of buildings and high density, even as, in her local battles, she fought high-rise public housing in the Village. So he cogently suggests that locals have inappropriately opposed a new glass building at 122 Greenwich Avenue, at the northern edge of the Greenwich Village Historic District, replacing a parking lot.

He writes:
Fortunately members of the Landmarks Commission have read The Death and Life of Great American Cities, as have key members of the Department of City Planning which also needs to approve any new building in a Historic District, even on a vacant lot.

So One Jackson Square is in process. Halle observes:
In Jane Jacobs’s spirit, Bloomberg and his DCP see government’s role as facilitating urban growth and density, especially to provide jobs for newcomers and existing residents, yet in a way that is geographically balanced and sensitive to neighborhoods…. The DCP has also, albeit prodded by local activists and Community Boards, moved to address the city’s perennial crisis of “affordable housing.” The Bloomberg administration has now introduced more affordable housing programs than any NY City administration for decades, though of course these programs are never enough and the problem remains huge.

DCP, he suggests, “is generally the most honest and sensible player, trying, as it should, to knit together and balance a myriad local interests.”

Unless, as he doesn’t mention, it is bypassed entirely in a state override of city land use procedures, as with projects like Atlantic Yards.

DCP's efforts to rezone neighborhoods after years of inattention represent progress. Still, as Eve Baron, director of the Municipal Art Society’s Planning Center, reminded me, "Zoning is just a tool for planning—community-initiated 197-a plans represent some of the most creative planning.” And, as Baron and others have pointed out, too often such plans are ignored.

Jacobs, in fact, was a booster if that 197-a plan for the North Brooklyn waterfront, the one the city bypassed. That's not to say that such community plans and the wishes of the city and developers/investors can always be harmonized, or that the city's land use review process, even if better than the state one, truly lets the public be heard. But the goal is balance.

Moses and Jacobs

In his essay, co-curator Klemek concludes:
Unfortunately, however, her ideas have often been misconstrued. A recent high-profile exhibition on Robert Moses and “the transformation of New York” went some way toward resuscitating the old power broker’s reputation... Interestingly, this reappraisal has often come at Jacobs’s expense. In a facile dichotomy, Moses is taken as the apotheosis of forceful public authority, while Jacobs is seen as little more than a nagging check on it…. And it is out of such a false dichotomy that calls are now often heard for a synthesis of Moses and Jacobs—that is, effective government action married to sensitive and respectful observation. But the truth is that Jacobs was never opposed to vigorous government authority per se; in fact, she advocated a democratically responsive balance of private and public interests. In a sense, Jacobs was the synthesis we now seek. But such an impoverished, laissez-faire civic landscape is not what Jacobs wanted at all. It is certainly not what she called for in her book or agitated for in her political commitments. If anything, she clearly envisioned the kind of responsive synthesis of public and private action now so often invoked. For Jacobs, healthy, sustainable city life was the product of a dynamic tension between government and the market, either of which could become a “cataclysmic” force if not effectively balanced.

And that tension, it seems, should be mediated by some public participation. Otherwise the democracy she savored, and Omar Freilla cited, is sacrificed when Jacobsian form is provided without--so to speak--Jacobsian function.


  1. I have to comment on the quote about whether “we plan from the ground up” which ties in to the government assertions that Atlantic Yards is being “executed pursuant to a ‘carefully considered’ development plan” and “in the context of a comprehensive development plan.” Atlantic Yards is neither planning from the ground up nor does it represent any kind of “comprehensive” planning at all.

    This is a reworking of a comment I posted to this site’s September 12, 2007 post (“ESDC, FCR Fire Back in Fierce Eminent Domain Defense”) about the litigation. The reworking is appropriate because in that earlier comment I left out mention of the recent rezoning of Fort Greene-Clinton Hill which contributes importantly to this analysis because that area is adjacent to Atlantic Yards, and City Planning was so throughly involved in making those changes which, because it does represent careful planning is evidence that the inconsistent Atlantic Yards activity does not. There is also an added mention of the role of the Landmarks Preservation Commission in shaping the fabric of the City.

    My earlier comment on the subject of whether Atlantic Yards actually reflects comprehensive planning supplemented reasons I identified why Ratner is shutting down public streets, sidewalks and avenues despite the fact that doing so is bad design. (It is also very un-Jane-Jacobsian.) Ratner almost certainly desires to shut down streets, avenue and sidewalks for a list of various wrong reasons, (comment to 09/09/’07 Atlantic Yards Report Post sets forth a list). One reason bad reason for shutting down the streets is this. If streets and avenues are left in place the Atlantic Yards project would present itself simply as several separate blocks in an overall area, thereby making it much more readily apparent that there is nothing to distinguish these blocks from any of their surrounding areas except the extraordinary density which makes Ratner’s planning of them absolutely inconsistent with the planning for any of the immediately adjacent blocks. . . .
    Blocks where there is contemporaneous development of immediately adjacent blocks also being done with substantial public stewardship.

    It is interesting to look at the level of care and comprehensiveness the City and State have exercised planning for density in the immediate area of which Atlantic Yards is a part. In this regard, the anomalies are most informing.

    Atlantic Yards has neighbors, neighbors in the form of immediately adjacent blocks and neighborhood. That it has neighbors is actually part of the reasons expressed for its being undertaken. In theory, it is part of a comprehensive plan to benefit its neighbors in the ways that it is planned to integrate with them.

    It is therefore odd and informative that the plans for Atlantic Yards do not mesh with the plans for the neighboring property. Not even time warp surgery can ameliorate the patent inconsistencies.

    Let’s look at the contrasting plans for the parcels in this area, Atlantic Yards and all its immediate adjacent neighbors:

    1. Atlantic Yards: Incomparably dense with respect to every square inch of property that Ratner will own.- Not taking into account the arena (and the oppressive effect it will have on circulation and traffic), the density is somewhere in excess of a 12 FAR.

    2. Atlantic Commons: Across the street from Atlantic Yards. On average it is the same distance from the transit hub. It was built with government aid and supervision (both from the City and State) only a dozen years ago. (For those too young or naive to see a dozen years as recent in real estate terms, it should be borne in mind that this is likely less time than it will take to build Atlantic Yards.) This project is not built as large as would be permitted under the R7-2 district zoning where it is located. The proposed R7-2 district, a medium-density general residential district, has a commercial FAR of 3.4, (or going up to 6.5 with community facilities). Though the original street network has proportionally more streets in this area, I believe a street was added, rather than subtracted, when this project was built and it helps create a park which is properly designed so as to feel shared by the all the public and surrounding community. The project is all residential and all affordable.

    3. Atlantic Terrace: Across the street from Atlantic Yards. On average it is closer to the transit hub. Being built with government aid and supervision within approximately the same time frame as Atlantic Yards but will be completed much sooner. It is also being built on a site the reclamation of which is being promoted by government- a brown field. Many key coordinating officials are credited in common with Atlantic Yards. It is not being built as large as would be permitted under the C6-2 district zoning where it is located. The proposed C6-2 district, a medium-density general commercial and residential district, has a commercial FAR of 6.0 and a residential FAR of 6.02 (R8 equivalent). 63 of the project’s 80 residential units (78.8%) will be affordable units with at least 50% of the project’s units being affordable to families with incomes at or below 80% AMI. The project will have commercial space at ground level. Atlantic Yards is so much taller than this 10-story project that its shadow will prevent Atlantic Terrace from using solar panels as originally planned. The almost unavoidable conclusion is that if the Atlantic Yards project density is desirable, then the government-sponsored planning for this more laudable non-Ratner project being built now right across the street should also to have involved much greater density.

    4. Rezoning of Fort Greene-Clinton Hill: One of the most recent planning steps taken in this immediate area is the down-zoning achieved for the immediately-neighboring Fort Greene-Clinton Hill. The City Council acted on July 25, 2007, to achieve the Fort Greene-Clinton Hill rezoning protections. The planning process involved reviews by, and reflects the work of, City Planning. The protected area includes 99 blocks of Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and part of the Wallabout neighborhoods, covering a wide expanse stretching from Atlantic Avenue to Park Avenue, and from Ashland Place to Classon Avenue. The change in zoning was effected through Jane-Jacobsian planning from the ground up effort initiated in 2002, driven by the Fort Greene Association, the Society for Clinton Hill, the Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project, the Pratt Area Community Council, Councilperson Letitia James, as well as numerous other civic and local organizations. Prior to the rezoning, most of the area was zoned R6- still much lower density than Atlantic Yards. After the approval of this major rezoning, the majority of the area now has what is called R6B zoning; which restricts building heights to only what is there at present, meaning mostly 3-to-5 story structures with a maximum height of 50 feet.

    5. Zoning for the Ward Bakery Building Block (part of the land being condemned for the AY project): The block is zoned almost entirely M1-1 with an edge zoned R7A. This zoning, with its far lower density, represents the plan that the City developed for this block and which presently applies for this block absent the Ratner high density sudden replacement of this plan. M1-1 is an FAR of 1.0 (or up to 2.4 with a community facility), and R7A is an FAR of 4.0. This is also consistent with and representative of the City’s still-persisting zoning plans for the blocks in the area just south of this block.

    6. Zoning for the Arena Block where cooperative apartment buildings were recently created and are now being condemned (part of the land being condemned for the AY project): This block is one of those closest to the transit hub. It is zoned C4-4A, R6B and R7A C4-4A is an FAR of 4.0, R6B is an FAR of 2.0 and R7A is an FAR of 4.0. This is also consistent with and representative of the City’s still-persisting zoning plans for the blocks in the area just south of this block.

    7. Landmarks: Landmarks is part of the overall planning process for the fabric of the city and if there is comprehensive planning it should be applied in a consistent manner across the city. The question is “When is a landmark not a landmark?” The Ward Bakery Building which Bruce Ratner is eager to destroy (extremely over-eager) is a real asset to area with extraordinary potential for contribution to the City fabric. Under normal circumstances one would expect the City Landmarks Preservation Commission to be evaluating it for protection. But it is not. On November 26, 2006 an op-ed piece by Tom Wolfe appeared in the New York Times which made the point that the City Landmarks Preservation Commission operates with insufficient independence from the Mayor. Whether or not the Wolfe analysis was entirely correct, all 11 Commissioners of the Landmarks Preservation Commission are appointed by the Mayor and the Mayor also appoints the Chair and the Vice Chair, which quite credibly supports the prevalent concern that the main reason Ward Bakery is not on the Commission’s radar screen is because the Mayor does not want it to be. 10 of the Commissioners receive no salary; a substantial salary ensues from appointment as the Commission’s Chair. The Commissioners and Landmark staff work hard and do excellent work. But when the Mayor takes an interest, how sufficient can the checks and balances be? What happens to hopes for consistency when the Mayor’s interest in a particular developer’s project is strong? If the site design called for Pacific Street (which separates the Ward bakery building block) to remain open, it would make such planning inconsistencies more obvious.

    Noted above, the almost unavoidable conclusion is that IF the Atlantic Yards project density is actually desirable, then present planning, (probably better), for neighboring non-Ratner property development logically ought to similarly involve much greater density. Assuming a careful and comprehensive design for the area, the only way to avoid this conclusion would be to suppose that the planning intentionally plans for very low density right next to the very high density Ratner-owned property as a mechanism to ameliorate the negatives of the extreme density at which Ratner is to build. Such a conclusion, if reached, would, in essence, require concluding that, in addition to the properties being condemned directly so that Ratner may take actual ownership of them, there is also proposed a subtle inverse condemnation of the ability and right of the neighboring parcel owners to, at an appropriate juncture, seek zoning changes to permit greater density on their property with the resulting increase in property value.


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