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Planner Burden on balanced growth, community consultation, and "esthetic democracy" (in Brooklyn)

The New York City Planning Commission (CPC) does more rezoning than planning; those rezonings vastly increase the value of land and thus shape development, a fact that deserves scrutiny. Witness CPC Chairperson Amanda Burden's stunning statement explaining how she concluded Harlem needed redevelopment: a friend couldn't find a restaurant there.

For a sense of Burden's perspective, consider the CUNY-TV show City Talk taped 03/14/2006, hosted by Doug Muzzio. Her evocation of balanced growth and the importance of community consultation sounded impressive.

Surely Burden's department has done some good work. However, the reality of Downtown Brooklyn, given the unanticipated housing boom, is quite different than city planners hoped. Moreover, the Atlantic Yards example stands in contrast to Burden's stated ideals, given that there was no city oversight and thus limited community consultation.

A curious locution

At about 4:20 in the program, even as Burden invoked the mixed-use mantra taught all of us by Jane Jacobs, she used a curious locution (bolded below) that seems to echo Mayor Mike Bloomberg's corporate background.

She said:
We have to grow our city wherever we can. And we have to provide different products for different customers. So we look across the Hudson... a lot of that [New Jersey] development should've been ours. But we weren't ready for it; we weren't zoned for it, we're underzoned. So the mayor says: create business districts in each one of our boroughs. And each one of those business districts shouldn't be a corporate park, but should have a real mix of housing and office and parks and culture. So that was our challenge.

The Brooklyn example

She continued, with great enthusiasm, by pointing to Brooklyn:
And we started with Downtown Brooklyn. And always what we try to do is a balance of preservation and growth. Here you have fantastic neighborhoods such as Boerum Hill and Fort Greene and Brooklyn Heights. You keep those neighborhoods of character, the low-scale neighborhood. But then, around the transit infrastructure, you grow. So you have apartment house construction, office buildings, and then the most important thing is, you have to look at the public open space, always that's what people love about a place. So, reshaping Flatbush Avenue, so it's a gateway to Downtown Brooklyn.... We're going to put a median in the middle, trees on both side, so when you walk there, it's got BAM, it's got everything, it is the best.

That sounds good, and a lot is uncontroversial, but there was a lot more flexibility than she let on. For example, while DCP said the "rezoning would facilitate new mixed-use academic and office buildings" in the northern segment of Downtown Brooklyn, the new tower once planned by Forest City Ratner at New York City Technical College's Klitgord Auditorium site--location of two Atlantic Yards public hearings--would instead be mostly condos. (That plan has since been scotched.)

Waterfront visions

At about 7:00, Muzzio enthused how the DCP web site was "extraordinarily visual," citing the waterfront rezoning of Williamsburg and Greenpoint.

AB: That's the thing. Any rezoning, to get it passed or done, has got to pass community boards and elected officials. So we have to build consensus. And the only way you can do that is by really showing people visually what they're going to get, and bringing in the stakeholders and getting them to feel invested in the plan. For instance, in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, here you had two miles of waterfront, it was fenced off, inacessible, derelict for decades. So to really get the community to not only understand the zoning that we were proposing, but to buy into that, we took the committee for open space of the community board there around to all waterfront parks in the city, and they chose the benches and the lights and the paving and the railing that's going to be on their waterfront. So this is really a plan that is created by the community. Otherwise we would have never have gotten it passed.
(Graphic from DCP web site. First emphasis added.)

A lot of people in Williamsburg might say they didn't have enough of a voice. Given the current frenzy of construction, as chronicled by the Gowanus Lounge, many are still disturbed. Burden is particularly concerned with street-level details--such as that "b-market" outside the planned Atlantic Yards arena--which has made her vulnerable to charges of micromanagement.

As for Atlantic Yards, as a state project it bypassed community oversight, and now even Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff has second thoughts.

Democracy at work?

Muzzio picked up on the issue.

DM: An esthetic democracy?

AB: Exactly. Because it has to be theirs. One is, it's better if it's theirs; it's more authentic, it's real. But also they're going to pass on it, as are the elected officials.

Not, of course, with Atlantic Yards.

The Downtown Brooklyn rezoning

The Downtown Brooklyn rezoning did not exactly show people what they were going to get, because the main goal was not housing but office jobs. The city's rationale for the rezoning: Downtown Brooklyn is poised to retain and grow the city's at-risk back-office jobs, preserve its tax base and generate new revenues.

(Graphics from DCP web site)

The goal was new office development and academic expansion space within the commercial core and, in the surrounding areas, new residential development with attractive ground-floor retail.

Changes on Flatbush Avenue were coming, allowing for "higher-density residential and commercial buildings." But the overall goal was 4.5 million square feet of new commercial office space, creating 18,500 office jobs, and some 1,000 new housing units.

Now there's much more housing than office space planned, and housing along with the academic facilities in the core, as noted above.

Contrast with AY

Atlantic Yards has generated significant protest, as Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries pointed out, in part because the project would directly abut some mostly low-rise neighborhoods. The high-rise luxury developments in Downtown Brooklyn would mosly isolated from other residential areas.

Activists groups that promote affordable housing sat out the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning. Had the potential for so much new luxury housing--as an alternative to the office towers promoted--been made clear, there would have been more debate about requiring affordable housing as a trade-off for vastly increased development rights.

Showing what's coming

I suspect that AY also provoked protest because, however deceptive the developer's brochures, there were enough efforts by others, like photographer Jonathan Barkey and even the Empire State Development Corporation (via the developer's architect, belatedly), to depict the scale of the development.

Had specific developers under the Downtown Brooklyn plan produced more contextual graphics of their projects, such as that appearing on the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership site, Downtown Brooklyn 2012 (right), much more discussion would've been sparked.

The fuzzy towers depicted in the Department of City Planning's document deserved more attention than the press and activist groups gave them at the time. And DCP should've explained that some of those office towers, places for the jobs New York City aimed to save, had a good chance of becoming luxury condos.

That might've gotten us closer to "esthetic democracy."


  1. During the Greenpoint Williamsburg Rezoning, I chaired B'klyn CB1 Rezoning Task Force Parks & Open Space Committee.
    While it's true that Amanda Burden toured waterfronts with us and worked with the committee to develop a shorewalk and parks plan, we certainly did not have a choice in the rezoning plan as a whole. The parks and open space committee actually voted against the plan in the last days. We didn't think the parks & open space needs were adequately addressed by the City.

    The rezoning committments that the City DID make are in jeapardy.

    For instance, DCP's N.Greenpoint committments of affordable housing and park development depend on the demolition of a sludge tank and relocation of a sludge loading dock and MTA property operations.

    DEP has now delayed the sludge loading dock relocation and tank demolition by an additional year or two. By the time the City actually acts on their N. Greenpoint committments, they'll be no native Greenpointers here to appreciate it. We're all being displaced. Priced out. Families, store owners ...
    Furthermore, our community 197A plans and other
    community plans NEVER called for high rises. DCP's plan looks nothing like our community process plans.

    Unfortunately, Ms. Burden's remarks in this article misrepresent what really happened. She's a nice lady and all that, but her paycheck comes from the City.

    Feel free to contact me for more info.
    Laura Hofmann


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