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Missing from the New Yorker's Bloomberg profile: public authorities and the real story of Atlantic Yards

A profile in this week's New Yorker, clocking in at more than ten thousand words, is headlined The Untouchable: Can a good mayor amass too much power?, and presents this tension:
Thanks to his money, Bloomberg has managed, perhaps more than any democratic politician ever before, to govern strictly with what he considers to be the greater good in mind. And, thanks to his money, the counterargument goes, he has essentially corrupted the system itself.

Is it always the greater good? In other words, should the Mayor be seen, at worst, as using questionable means for good ends, or do questionable means lead to questionable ends?

I think Bloomberg's record is mixed, but on Atlantic Yards and development issues, he's vulnerable to much criticism. So Ben McGrath's New Yorker profile, while reasonably thorough and hardly a valentine, could've been much tougher.

Notably, had McGrath waited until this week to write, he would've learned that Bloomberg is the prime culprit in an effort to stall reform of public authorities, as Assemblyman Richard Brodsky pointed out yesterday.

And if he'd dug further, he would've concluded that Bloomberg's appointees on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board provided the crucial, but dubious, justification in June for revising the Vanderbilt Yard deal with Forest City Ratner.

Bloomberg as Moses?

McGrath writes:
Bloomberg took office during a recession, and quickly established himself as a bold and decisive fiscal manager, ultimately demonstrating, as his friend Mitchell Moss, an urban-planning professor at N.Y.U., says, that New York was “open for business after 9/11.” As the economy recovered, Bloomberg set about trying to transform the city, on a scale not seen since the days of Robert Moses. “I think if you look, we’ve done more in the last seven years than—I don’t know if it’s fair to say more than Moses did, but I hope history will show the things we did made a lot more sense,” Bloomberg told me. “You know, Moses did some things that turned out not to be great: cutting us off from the waterfront, putting roads all along the water.” The Bloomberg model, under the direction of Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff and Amanda Burden, the City Planning Commissioner, was based to a large extent on undoing the Moses legacy: rezoning for commercial and residential use large tracts of waterfront property that had once been the province of industry.

Grand projects in New York had long been believed to be unfeasible; the costs up front were too high, and the red tape too thick. (The Second Avenue subway has been in turnaround since 1929.) Urban planning was strictly an academic discipline, and development proceeded on a piecemeal basis. Doctoroff, who as an investment banker in the mid-nineties had dreamed of bringing the 2012 Summer Olympics to the city, persuaded Bloomberg to enable supersized, centrally planned mixed-use projects that would essentially create new neighborhoods from scratch: in downtown Brooklyn, in Hunts Point, on the far West Side of Manhattan.

There was no neighborhood from scratch to be created in Downtown Brooklyn; rather, there was a rezoning aimed to increase office space--to extend a business neighborhood--that wound up bringing condos to Flatbush Avenue--a new skyline but not quite a neighborhood.

As for the Robert Moses comparison, remember how Doctoroff in February 2007 demurred from claiming the mantle, and was challenged forcefully by South Bronx activist Majora Carter. And remember how Bloomberg defender Moss was challenged on WNYC in December 2007.

The AY omission

Also note that, were Bloomberg truly proud of Atlantic Yards, he would have mentioned it--and the baseball stadiums--on his campaign web site and in PlaNYC 2030 materials.

The Bloomberg revision and AY in Downtown Brooklyn

McGrath notes that the West Side Stadium and the Olympics never came about:
Cataclysmic events like September 11th and the current global financial crisis have a way of occasioning revisionist thinking, and in the early months of this year, after the shock of the prospective third term had subsided, a more skeptical narrative of the Bloomberg mayoralty began to surface, in which he appeared less like Batman and more like a beneficiary of larger social and economic forces.

...The re-assessors rattle off similar lists of unfulfilled projects to imply that the verdict on grand-scale transformation is far from certain. The World Trade Center remains unbuilt, the conversion of the old Post Office on Eighth Avenue into a new Penn Station—Moynihan Station—is stalled, and the real-estate giant the Related Companies has had to postpone financing for the Hudson Yards project on the West Side, where the stadium was to have gone. If Atlantic Yards, a proposed remaking of downtown Brooklyn centered on the relocation of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, ever proceeds, it will be greatly diminished, and without the participation of Frank Gehry, whose involvement was originally used as a selling point. The rezonings, which amount to an impressive one-sixth of the city’s total land area, await the next boom cycle, but their primary imprint on the skyline, thus far, can be seen in luxury condominium towers and garish McMansion co-ops in Brooklyn and Queens that now seem emblematic of an unrealistic age when Wall Street money accounted for thirty-five per cent of the city’s earnings.

No, Atlantic Yards wouldn't remake Downtown Brooklyn, it would extend Downtown Brooklyn into Prospect Heights.

A deeper focus on Atlantic Yards might have put the mayor's reign in more perspective.


  1. I haven't had time to read the entire Ben McGrath article, but from what I've seen so far the following seems to make no sense:

    "The Bloomberg model . . . was based to a large extent on undoing the Moses legacy: rezoning for commercial and residential use large tracts of waterfront property that had once been the province of industry."

    Aside from the question of whether the Bloomberg rezonings are a good idea or not, Moses (as far as I know) had nothing to do with the original zoning of NYC's waterfront for industrial uses.

    Furthermore, as can be seen from the essays associated with the Moses exhibits and from the Joel Schwartz book, the "New York Approach," that was a major source of info, one of Moses' biggest "achievements" was actually to destroy large amounts of NYC's industrial land for "tower-in-the-park" (I call them "tower-in-a-lot") housing projects, highways, parks and large civic centers. For instance, lots of downtown Brooklyn that was once commercial / industrial was torn down for things like middle income housing, civic structures and Cadman Plaza.

    So, Bloomberg et al. are not undoing the Moses legacy, in this regard, but building upon it and extending it.

    7:31 p.m., Mon., 8/17/09


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