But the Civic Talk, sponsored by Henry Stern’s New York Civic and titled “What If? Battles Over Development,” was notable for some rhetorical disagreement about the nature of civic opposition and some strong opinions on the right way to develop in New York. And Atlantic Yards came up not as a good example but as something to be avoided.
In an echo of some of the Robert Moses revisionism that has surfaced in the past few years, Adrian Benepe, the city’s Commissioner of Parks & Recreation, set the stage by wondering whether some great public works produced by master builder/power broker Moses, such as Orchard Beach, Jones Beach, and 11 public pools, could be built today. It will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, he pointed out, to build on the city’s brownfields.
“If we get bogged down in factionalism and fighting and whether this small piece of land might somehow impact this minnow,” he said, an apparent reference to the the legal battle that snagged Westway, “we will never build the great public works, we’ll never build the great parks of the 21st century... We’ve got to get together and unite and say, what’s the great common good here.”
That’s a reasonable argument, and one that moderator Stern, a former City Council member and Parks Commissioner, took up. “We have a cult of landmarking,” Stern said, noting that “no one hates a high rise more, with greater intensity than residents of the last high rise, which was built a block away.” He called for “balance and moderation.”
Places to develop
Planner Alexander Garvin described how his work for the city and the 2012 Olympic bid and his subsequent work as a consultant all ran together. He showed a map from 1972 that depicted some 50 potential sites for housing. Several have been built or are under consideration, such as Battery Park City, Roosevelt Island, Riverside South, and Queens West.
(Graphics from Visions for New York City: Housing and the Public Realm, now on Garvin's web site. It was originally prepared in May 2006 for the New York City Economic Development Corporation but not released. A leaked version was published by Streetsblog in August 2006.)
Then Garvin pointed to the proposal in PlaNYC (which omits mention of Atlantic Yards) to cover railyards and highways, “places where you wouldn’t have to relocate anybody,” such as the Prospect Expressway in Brooklyn (below) or Sunnyside Yards in Queens.
He also cited Sunset Park in Brooklyn and Homeport in Staten Island as underutilized waterfront sites. “There were opportunities available, in 1972, and they’re still available... and one day, in some government, we will actually have a series of people who will push them through and get them built.”
Enough places to build
There are enough sites to build more than 300,000 units of housing, he said, “so when someone tells you there’s nowhere we can build, it’s nonsense.” He acknowledged that “we may not want to build there, or it may not be cost-effective.”
Both of those factors can be in flux; for example, for years it was not cost-effective to build on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard. Then, Forest City Ratner proposed a plan before the MTA put the site out for bid.
(Remember Forest City Ratner's flier: Atlantic Yards: Helping Solve Brooklyn’s Housing Crisis? Well, sure, it or another development could help. But, following Garvin's logic, we don’t need to freight quite so much density on one site, because other sites are available.)
Garvin also pointed to “places that could support increased density,” a recommendation he said, that he would’ve put in PlaNYC.
He cited Third Avenue in the Bronx, which once had an elevated subway and still retains both a population sufficient to support mass transit and numerous abandoned or underutilized sites for development.
The report notes that, under existing zoning, developing vacant and underutilized sites in the Bronx near Third Avenue would add as many as 36,000 units to the housing stock, while rezoning could "add up to 114,000 new units." So that undercuts the argument for "extreme density" at the Atlantic Yards site.
“If you look at the site and say, ‘OK, what are the sites that are built at half of allowable FAR [Floor Area Ratio] or less, or a quarter of the allowable FAR or less?’, they’d be built up with new housing,” he said, pointing to a map (right) that showed a plethora of sites. “Take a look at all of those sites. If you provided mass transit service and transformed it into a boulevard, you’d get a great deal of new housing.”
Note that, in the Atlantic Yards case, the Empire State Development Corporation determined that a building that is less than 60 percent of FAR is blighted--a rule that could be used all over the city and is thus questioned in the appeal of a judge’s decision dismissing a challenge to the AY environmental review.
Garvin also pointed to Astoria, where “a new transit line on a landscaped boulevard” going west to the East River, “could provide tremendous amounts of new housing” on underutilized sites.
“I think these opportunities exist all over New York," he said, and the public "should be presented with the opportunities, not just the problems. With such opportunities, he said, "we can overcome” a variety of opposition, from NIMBY (not in my backyard) to--an acronym new to many in the audience--NOPE (not on planet Earth).
Defending dissent, even NIMBY
It was up to the spare, pensive Albert Butzel (attorney and former President of Friends of Hudson River Park) to change the momentum in the room. Butzel said he had planned to talk about Westway, but instead wanted to respond to the sentiments expressed by the previous speakers.
First, he discussed the landmark environmental battle, begun in the mid-1960s, when activists fought Con Edison’s effort to build a storage power generator on Storm King Mountain, leading to the first-ever judicial ruling that esthetic impacts could be considered in such projects. “There were parts of the human spirit that responded to nature,” Butzel said of the arguments raised, adding that “People... opposed something which ‘had to happen,’ and when it didn’t happen, the utility adopted the alternatives... proposed from the very beginning.”
“A lot of these cases are NIMBY cases, but they are cases that people feel strongly about, because they do have an interest beyond NIMBY,” he continued. “Who else are going to fight a lot of projects except the people who are most directly affected by them, even though the consequences to the society as a whole are much broader than the so-called NIMBY interests that Henry and Adrian and even Alex called into question?”
Everyone from the real estate industry through civic groups thought Westway “was a grand idea,” while some dissenters thought the “financial scheme to use federal highway funds” should have been revised, with the money instead used for transit. “The idea was our city can’t grow without this,” he said. Now, even supporters wonder how they once backed the project.
The city's dynamic
“I just want to say opposition is not bad per se. It’s a very, very important part of the dynamic of this city and one of the things that’s made us great,” Butzel said. “There is no crosstown expressway, and there is no expressway running through Washington Square Park, because some people were strong enough to stand up and say, ‘I don’t care what the mayor thinks. I don’t care what Robert Moses thinks, but this is not going to happen because it’s going to diminish the city. It’s not just my self interest, it’s because it’s going to be a negative impact on the city.’”
Questions about when and where to oppose and to build, of course, were raised during last year’s discussions of the legacy of Jane Jacobs, when, in retrospect, some of the causes discussed seem like no-brainers.
“If people would stop shouting about negativism and start paying a little more attention in this city to building consensus for projects that are worthy,” he said, “I think we’d see a lot more of them, with a lot less wasted energy.”
Finding the balance
Stern called Butzel’s remarks “very sensible... Al Butzel made the compelling point that dissent from progress is not treason... The trouble is it’s so difficult to know what is right and what is wrong. Some cases are more obvious than others. I’d say Storm King is one of them. Others are more difficult.”
Stern noted that he opposed Westway for nine years, when he was on City Council. He supported it for seven years when he was Parks Commissioner under Mayor Ed Koch. His candid explanation: “I was traded to a new team.”
Upon reflection, Stern said that his “attitude toward Westway is ‘Yes but,’” suggesting that the Hudson River Park that resulted has many flaws and that a “modified, worked out with the community” plan might have resulted in something better, but not a ”superhighway with 60-story towers,” as once envisioned.
The public realm
Attorney and planner Michael White took off from Stern’s comment, pointing to the difficulty in empowering communities when Community Boards don’t have the money to hire planners. “How do you get to ‘yes, but,’?” he asked, to avoid not only NIMBY but NIABY (not in anyone’s backyard). “There are projects like Atlantic Yards that involve an over-concentration or stealing of resources that shouldn’t be built anywhere, and anybody anywhere in New York should oppose them.”
Garvin responded, “It’s very simple. We should stop worrying about other people’s property and start investing in the people’s property. The people’s property are our streets, our parks, our public realm. And we should be discussing where we spend our money on our property. And if we spend our money on our property wisely, then there will be private development that goes on property within the context of the existing zoning.”
Of course, a project like Atlantic Yards, or even Extell’s bid for the Vanderbilt Yard, could not go on within existing zoning--but that points to a need to rezone the railyards and (possibly) environs--a potential that the ESDC improbably thought unlikely.
Garvin continued, “So if you took for example 21st Street in Astoria and you invested in planting trees on it and you invested in putting in a light rail, you would have something positive to offer the community. The community would not be opposed to spending money on having a transit line. They would not be opposed to planting trees. Those are things that would be assets to the community.“
Government: stay out
Garvin then criticized government projects and, apparently, public-private partnerships like those pursued by the ESDC: “And we would stop having this ridiculous argument that we constantly have about the government going to get involved in developing property on its own. I think the government should be not developing real estate. The government should be doing its investing in its infrastructure and its own property. And there is a great deal of it. We do not maintain our streets well. We have collapsed bridges everywhere.”
“And finally this city has begun to do the kind of investment that it did in the 19th century, and that I believe would help deal with a lot of what Al Butzel is talking about," he said. "If we stopped talking about developing Atlantic Yards or developing these things and left private property to the private owners to develop and instead spent our money on the public realm, I think we’d get a lot of work [done].”
That drew significant applause.
(In December 2005, I wrote about how Stern, a former mentor to Bruce Ratner, had recused New York Civic from commenting on Atlantic Yards, since the organization had received support from Ratner. Stern had said then he would personally support the project. I wonder if his position has become more subtle.)
The AY complication
Of course, the $200 million in direct subsidies for Atlantic Yards was initially supposed to be solely for infrastructure, but that infrastructure in part would be directed to support one specific project rather than any development on the site. (The investment in infrastructure was announced after the city and state backed Forest City Ratner's plan, rather than before any plan was solicited.)
And then the city devoted its $100 million to reimburse the developer for land purchases, then added $105 million for infrastructure.
Left unsaid in Garvin's formulation: can a sports facility be built in an urban area without government intervention? Maybe, maybe not.
But if a sports facility were to receive substantial public assistance and be nominally publicly owned, as with the Atlantic Yards arena, shouldn't the city drive a much, much harder bargain than, say, allowing the developer to reap the bounty of naming rights?