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Vitullo-Martin takes a second look at Jane Jacobs

In the wake of the new exhibit, Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York, urban analyst Julia Vitullo-Martin of the Manhattan Institute has been taking a fresh look at Jacobs and finding some flaws (and enduring value) in the famed urbanist's take on New York.

Notably, Vitullo-Martin suggests that Jacobs--or especially some who invoke her--didn't fully appreciate that towers, even uniform ones, might be needed to add density in a growing city. That sounds like a backhanded partial defense of the Atlantic Yards plan, but we know that Vitullo-Martin, as shown in the film Brooklyn Matters, is no fan of that project.

She has said "Atlantic Yards is throwing out every principle Jane Jacobs ever proposed” and, in reference to AY, called affordable housing "the Trojan Horse these days on big bad projects that shouldn’t get done."

West Village Houses

In an Aug. 30 New York Sun article headlined West Village Houses a Monument to a 1960s Development Battle, Vitullo-Martin describes the case of the West Village Houses, 42 five-story walkups, "a living testimony to that victory by Jacobs and her fellow New Yorkers," built between Washington and West streets instead of towers proposed by the Wagner administration.
(Photo from New York Sun)

Vitullo-Martin writes:
Conceived in idealism, their construction fell prey to a decade of delays and escalating construction costs that ate away at the architectural standards Jacobs had first proposed. By the time they opened in 1974, the houses were reviled by Jacobs as well as by most architectural critics, despite having been designed by the distinguished architectural firm of Perkins and Will. Indeed, the New York Times once called the houses “an unloved failure.”

Residents are happy, saying the houses helped build community in a once-rough neighborhood. Whether modernist towers would've done so is an open question that Vitullo-Martin doesn't address. But she does point out, citing planner and former city official Alexander Garvin, that "Jacobs didn’t understand the level of subsidy that was going to be needed."

Thanks to an owner that didn't take a hard line and a city willingness to forgive some debt, the Bloomberg administration came up with " a tenant-sponsored, non-eviction co-op conversion plan." And the residents, Vitullo-Martin points out, have often actively opposed new luxury development, even though, as Garvin notes, anything facing the Hudson River "has carrying capacity for high density."

That doesn't mean Jacobs would've opposed high density; she argued for dynamism in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Starrett City and density

In a February newsletter article headlined What to Make of Starrett City, Vitullo-Martin muses:
Are huge towers necessary to respond to relentless residential demand? Can they be made livable? Was Robert Moses right, and Jane Jacobs wrong, about size? Unpopular as large developments are, planner Alex Garvin argues, "It's high time we started building projects of the same dimensions. We will never solve the housing problem while waiting for a small developer to build here and there."

Notably, Starrett City is big but not particularly dense, since it covers so much ground--less than 40 units per acre (AY would be 292)--thus attracting buyers who might want to construct some infill buildings.

While Garvin's right that small developers building "here and there" won't solve the housing problem, there's a difference between a large development like Starrett City, built in uniform towers, and one, like Battery Park City, which was opened up to multiple developers.

Fixing public housing

In a September 13 Sun article headlined Linking a City Housing Authority’s Money Woes and a Jacobs Complaint, Vitullo-Martin writes more positively about Jacobs, discussing how the authority might raise some more funds and also make its buildings more livable.

The solution: add connecting streets and retail facilities to support diverse street life. Former city housing commissioner Jerilyn Perine said the federal government's unwillingness to pay for such changes left the city housing authority hidebound.

Vitullo-Martin finds columnist Errol Louis to be a Jacobsian, on this issue, at least:
“Public housing does everything Jacobs doesn’t want,” a columnist for the New York Daily News who as a child lived in the Manhattanville Houses, Errol Louis, said. “The next logical step is for them to take a New Urbanist approach to reform: Bust up the streets. Add diversity of use. There are businesses that would pay an arm and a leg to be within spitting distance of Columbus Circle, so lease them space in Amsterdam Houses.”

Upper West Side story

In a September 27 Sun article headlined From ‘a Surly Kind of Slum' to a Desirable Locale, Vitullo-Martin recalls how Jacobs called the Upper West Side area of city failure, citing overly long blocks, even though it has a diversity of buildings and mixture of uses.

Columbus Avenue, which Jacobs called "an abrupt garish gash," is of course a ritzy shopping street, amid residential luxury.

Was Jacobs wrong? Vitullo-Martin acknowledges that high crime had dampened street life. But new development helped stabilize the neighborhood, notably the Columbia, which borders Broadway between 96th and 97th streets, which opened in 1983. And, Vitullo-Martin points out, that the building has dull retail and is more self-contained than the rest of the neighborhood.

She writes:
Certainly it is not an example of the "mending that is all but invisible" that Ms. Jacobs thought was appropriate for new buildings in old urban neighborhoods. But in planting the flag, its presence encouraged new development and rehabilitation all around it — development that ironically now offers it serious competition.

Then again, it does, in a Jacobsian way, link disparate neighborhoods, connecting the area to Columbia University's campus 20 blocks north.

Columbia University professor of urban affairs Ester Fuchs suggests that the neighborhood decline was caused by "forces way beyond the city's control — cheap mortgages encouraging the middle class to leave, for one." Columbia helped stabilize the market.

Fuchs acknowledges that the crime problem was serious, "and the safety issue trumps everything else." And Jacobs, as might have been pointed out in this article, also placed a priority on safety. So maybe the verdict is even more murky.


  1. I just posted a comment (subject to moderation) on the Sun's Upper West Side article that I think is relevant.

    Vitullo-Martin, and the broker she quotes, paint the Upper West Side north of 96th Street as virgin territory, a land of huge, cheap apartments, uninhabited by "ordinary New Yorkers."

    I remember that area in the 70s, and people definitely lived in those apartments - but Black and Puerto Rican people don't seem to count for Vitullo-Martin. I'm not sure exactly how it fits into your analysis, but considering how much the issue of race has been brought up in the Atlantic Yards battle, I think it definitely deserves to be mentioned here.


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