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Is New York losing its soul? Sort of, panelists say (and one targets AY)

“Is New York Losing Its Soul?” was the topic last night in the first installment of the series of public programs keyed to the Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York exhibit sponsored by the Municipal Art Society. The panelists at the Donnell Library auditorium, facing an audience of some 250 people, expressed varying degrees of dismay over homogenization and rising rents, as well as feelings of impotence in a developer-friendly city. And Atlantic Yards was again the poster child for unwelcome development.

Leading off, moderator Clyde Haberman, a New York Times Metro columnist, brought up the relentless march of chain banks and chain drugstores. “I suspect history will smile on the Bloomberg administration,” he said, but [corrected] “it has yet to meet a developer to which it wishes to say no.” (That’s not quite true, given the administration’s posture toward Joe Sitt’s Thor Equities in Coney Island.) The one example he referenced—noting that panelist Alison Tocci of Time Out New York wanted to discuss it—was Atlantic Yards.

Haberman allowed that the city has always been losing part of its soul, and suggested that neighborhoods like DUMBO, the Lower East Side, and Times Square had improved. And, he pointed out, if the city seems too much in the hands of the monied classes, well, it has always been a place to make money.

(Here's the New York Times's report; there are a lot of interesting comments, including Benjamin Hemric's observation that Jacobs was more pro-market and welcoming of gentrification than those on the panel.)

Where's the soul?

Tocci suggested the city’s soul is made of artists and small businesses, and from her perch as president and group publisher at TONY, she sees a growing amount of anger about affordability. Darren Walker, a VP of the Rockefeller Foundation (the major funder of the exhibit and, a half-century ago, of Jacobs), noted the city’s growing inequality and unprecedented decline in its African-American population.

Author Tama Janowitz quirkily described gentrification in her neighborhood near the Brooklyn Museum. And theater impresario Rocco Landesman, citing the “de-libidinization of our city,” hearkened warmly (to the unease of some) back to the sex-saturated Times Square.

Haberman injected a little skepticism, recalling past battles to stop McDonald’s: “I’m not a big defender of McDonald’s, but I don’t think they’ve killed the city.” Tocci described welcome changes on Smith Street in Brooklyn, near which she’s lived for 20 years, only to see businesses priced out recently by greedy landlords.

City intervention

Walker cautioned, “We don’t want to vilify every developer. The reality is, we do not have sufficient mechanisms to mitigate inequality.” He pointed to past investments in Mitchell-Lama housing and the maintenance of rent-stabilized apartments. He said some “intervention” could help “smaller, indigenous stores.” (Arguably, regulations could be loosened to lower the barrier to entry, allowing more mixed-used blocks. Here's Municipal Art Society testimony on a study and other solutions.)

He also noted that the city, since the administration of Mayor Ed Koch, has invested far more aggressively in subsidized housing, compared to other cities, though “it’s insufficient.”

Height limits & AY

Haberman noted that the Upper West Side was used to 12-story building heights, but now there are “50-story twin monsters” (courtesy of an air rights swap and built by Extell, embraced by Atlantic Yards opponents when it offered the only rival bid for the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard). He set up a bit of a false dichotomy, disregarding the recent zoning change in the neighborhood, asking whether “you can go as high as you want, or must we have limits?”

Tocci swung at the fat pitch. “Atlantic Yards is a great example. I live not too far from it. I don’t think that anyone who lives there is opposed to the notion that it should be developed,” she said, but “people are opposed to the size,” describing it as “17 skyscrapers plus a stadium.” (Actually, it’s 16 towers, plus an arena.)

There’s been very little planning, she said, regarding issues like traffic or parking. “Everybody who crosses Atlantic Avenue knows it can’t bear that kind of development,” she said. “If the Bloomberg administration had been as aggressive about supporting small businesses as big developers, there might be more balance.”

NYT & Bruce?

When it came time for questions from the crowd, delivered on index cards, Haberman noted that “I’m not going to ask all of them, including ‘Why does the New York Times partner with Bruce Ratner?’ I’m just a wage slave.”

(As I learned afterward, that question came from a Manhattanite, albeit one quite concerned about Atlantic Yards.)

What would Jacobs do?

So, what would Jane Jacobs (who died last year) do, one audience member asked, in a submitted question. “She would ask you,” stressed Walker, noting that Jacobs's message was for people to take action in their communities.

Tocci cited the Jacobsian principles of short blocks, a variety of shops and places to interact, as well as density. Landesman cited the need for buildings of varying ages.

“But you’re not suggesting that a 1950s notion of the city needs to be stuck in time,” countered Walker. “We’re learning some disturbing things, but the answer isn’t always, ‘we need short blocks.’ The answer may be something else.”

It sounded vaguely reminiscent of architect Michael Sorkin’s observation that the city can tolerate a certain number of superblocks, and might even do so regarding Atlantic Yards. But the unspoken rebuttal to Walker is that Jacobs was a proponent of dynamism, not stasis, but believed in a more consultative and organic process than that going on in today’s city.

Later, after Walker raised the issue of interventions into the market, an audience member intervened from her seat, asking, “How about a City Planning Commission that represents the interests of a wide range of people instead of just developers?” There was hearty applause from the crowd. (The commission was quite busy yesterday listening to testimony about Columbia University's proposed expansion.)

Haberman suggested that Community Boards might serve as a counterweight. The crowd grumbled.

What next?

In closing, Haberman wondered whether there was “potential good” in the wake of community concern, noting how the historic preservation movement got a jump-start in the 1960s after the disturbing demolition of Penn Station.

“I hope so, if people get mad as hell,” said Tocci, but "it’s very difficult, because developers have so much power and so much money.”

Janowitz said she was impressed the room was full, an indication of civic concern. But civic concern and even civic protest are only a start. The discussion needs to address potential policy choices, and the establishment of institutions (Seattle offers an example) to channel citizen input.


  1. What does it mean to lose one's soul? Pretty hard to describe, but the NYC Economic Development Corporations plan for Duffield Street might be an example.

    The EDC wants to destroy homes owned by Abolitionists, and thinks that it is better to destroy these homes immediately than to research whether they were connected to the Underground Railroad slave safehouse movement. Moreover, the EDC thinks that the only possible reason to save the homes would be verifiable proof of a connection to the Underground Railroad. The fact that they were home to important Abolitionists does not make them worthy of preserving.

    The EDC proposes building an underground parking lot on the site of these Abolitionist homes.

    Maybe the EDC has not lost its soul, but it certainly has no respect for the potential economic value of these properties. They might not be soulless, but the EDC plans do seem irrational.


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