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Planner Garvin on Atlantic Yards: “A single site rezoned for a single owner with a set of towers and an arena. That's not a public realm."

Architect, planner, and educator Alexander Garvin is hardly an anti-development NIMBY. He calls himself pro-development and is proud of his work steering the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) and serving as managing director of the NYC 2012 Olympics effort.

But Garvin, stubbornly enough, is a believer in the public realm--streets, parks, transit system--and thinks that’s where government investment should go, and the private development will follow.

He believes in clear rules and an even playing field, rather than a governmental attempt to pick winners.

And that means that he can’t avoid taking shots at Atlantic Yards as an example of where things went wrong, a project where the public realm was scanted in favor of a single developer and the city's land use review process was circumvented.

Last night, he discussed the major planning ventures with which he’s been involved, part of “Conversations on New York,” sponsored by the Architectural League, in conjunction with its exhibition The City We Imagined/The City We Made: New New York 2001-2010 (which will move to Governors Island next month).

[Update July 9: Here's coverage, and video, from Urban Omnibus.]

Learning from Lower Manhattan

“My greatest achievement, bar none, is that we will have a street at Greenwich Street that runs through from TriBeCa to Lower Manhattan,” Garvin said, referring to the restoration of a street once sacrificed for the World Trade Center superblock.

He said he was also proud that the value of architecture was not lost: “I believe we put on the front pages of newspapers around the world that New York cared about architecture.”

Referring to the “Listening to the City” public deliberation event at the Javits Center (some skepticism here), Garvin suggested that it was “probably the first time and the last in my lifetime that that many people sat in a room to discuss the future of the city.”

Garvin noted that, despite the criticism of the plans, the square footage requirement was essentially sacrosanct, given that the Port Authority of NY/NJ, owner of the site, was reliant on income from lease payments by Larry Silverstein.

State > city, with AY

Garvin reflected that the administration of Mayor John Lindsay (1966-73) gave up city control of agencies like schools and transit to avoid a financial catastrophe.

“Mayor Bloomberg, to his credit, has spent most of his administration getting parts of it back,” Garvin said.

Then he lamented the state’s intervention into development issues. “They don't have to vote on Hudson Yards and Atlantic Yards or any of these other things unless the ESDC [Empire State Development Corporation] is being used to circumvent ULURP [the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure].”

“We don't have to give up control of the city to the state, we've chosen to give up control,” he said. (In fact, his former boss, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Dan Doctoroff, has said that if it happened again, he would have encouraged putting the project through ULURP.)

What to focus on

One of his interlocutors, architect and academic Michael Sorkin, brought up the Bloomberg administration’s spate of rezonings, referencing a recent report by the Furman Center for Real Estate that found only a modest net gain in buildable capacity.

“I don't think we should be focusing on private property but what we own in common,” said Garvin, citing such things as streets and parks. He added that the zoning code is way overdue for a revision: “Why should we have 1000 pages that nobody can understand?”


“It’s clear that the political culture has shifted in favor of private interest,” Sorkin said, suggesting that the term “public/private partnership” involves using public energies to assist developers: “Atlantic Yards, Columbia, all this seems abusive to me.”

“I'm not against private capital,” Garvin responded. “I'm pro-development,”

“You were talking like [anarcho-community Peter] Kropotkin about three minutes ago,” Sorkin quipped.

Garvin reiterated that the government’s focus should be on the public realm.

Criticizing AY

“Atlantic Yards: what kind of public realm is there? None,” he responded rhetorically. “A single site rezoned for a single owner with a set of towers and an arena. That's not a public realm. If you're going to increase what you can support on the site, you need to be able to support them with something, such as community facilities, mass transit, and streets, and I have a problem when the upzoning isn't related to that.”

Actually, Atlantic Yards is not an upzoning but an override of zoning. There might be some new facilities, but the timing of a school and a day care center is unclear, and dependent on public money. Meanwhile, streets have been subtracted, rather than added, and there’s no opportunity for multiple developers to bid on separate sites.

(According to the Real Deal, Forest City Ratner executive MaryAnne Gilmartin is touting public realm-like features:
The area in front of the arena will house 12,000 square feet of open space, she said, and a rebuilt subway entrance (previously in disuse) covered with flowering plants. There will be benches and seating in the plaza, along with retail shops, and the space will house greenmarkets and other outdoor events, she said.
Unmentioned: this is all temporary, space-filling, in place of yet-to-be built towers. The "rebuilt subway entrance" will be a temporary structure, not the once promised Urban Room. There would be improved access to the arena, but nothing systemic. As urban planning professor Tom Angotti has pointed out in Gotham Gazette, "Transit-oriented development should include transit improvements.")

Hudson Yards “is a totally different animal,” suggested Garvin, noting that subway access is expected to be added. (Of course not everyone in the area is comfortable with the scale for Hudson Yards.)

“Why has Atlantic Yards gone so bad,” Sorkin asked archly, “with such a constellation of enlightened officials?”

“I think Atlantic Yards could be great,” Garvin responded. “I don't think it is.” (Well, if a mega-development at all or part of the AY site was “great,” it wouldn’t be Atlantic Yards.)

He diplomatically chose not to point fingers in response to Sorkin’s question.

Looking at Columbia

“I had an interesting walk looking at Columbia’s redevelopment plan,” Garvin recalled. “If you don't take the [handful of] properties [whose owners have resisted condemnation], what earthly difference does it make to that plan?”

(Well, Columbia says it needs them for the “bathtub,” the contiguous underground service area.)

“How do you make a redevelopment plan that ignores entirely the block between Hudson River park and the next street?” he asked. “Is there supposed to be no connection to the waterfront?”

When there's public benefit

“I find it extremely perplexing that the public is willing to use its greatest power”--presumably eminent domain--”without insisting on a public benefit,” Sorkin observed. “I'm baffled.”

“I think it's possible to do differently,” Garvin said. “I'm not against what you are, which is some of the privatization of the public realm. There isn’t a person in this room who doesn't think that Bryant Park isn't a public park.”

“There are in fact multiple publics,” Sorkin suggested.

Garvin praised city Commissioner of Transportation Janette Sadik-Khan for “reclaiming the public realm” by turning streets into plazas.

Affordable housing

Garvin also opposes special zoning that provides density benefits in certain circumstances.

Sorkin brought up inclusionary zoning, which many affordable housing advocates support as a valid compromise, offering developers increased density in exchange for some lower-rent housing.

“I think if you want to provide subsidized housing, that we should be subsidizing housing,” Garvin said. “I am a great proponent of public housing. I don't think that anybody in this room would be in favor of tearing down any of those buildings.”

The Olympics

Garvin reflected on his unusual meeting with Doctoroff, who’d read his book--The American City: What Works, What Doesn’t--and called him in for a meeting in February 1996.

“I do not go to sporting events,” the bow-tied Garvin acknowledged. “Dan Doctoroff was petrified that I'd tell a reporter that I go to opera or chamber music or theater but not sporting events.”

But Garvin, who says he habitually hedges when asked about projects, was completely enthusiastic about bringing the Olympics to the city, first as part of an abandoned 2008 bid, then a 2012 bid, thinking it could boost the city’s economy and reshape its

Thus began what Garvin calls “an extraordinary relationship” with Doctoroff. Garvin brought in two teaching assistants from his course at Yale. “We spent six months looking at every vacant site” in the city, “because I don't believe in relocation... I don't see why we have to displace people unnecessarily. We found about 300 large vacant sites.”

The two things planners couldn’t afford, he allowed, were the Olympic Village and Olympic Stadium. The only way to pay for a stadium was to get someone to run it afterward and buy it, such as the Jets.

He recalled the architectural competition for the Olympic Village. “I am very disappointed that Queens West is never going to look like that--you're not going to have the public realm,” he said.

Sorkin asked if the well-distributed set of venues--the lack of critical mass--doomed the Olympics bid.

Garvin suggested that it was rather the internal politics of the Olympic committee, reacting to the war in Iraq.

“In your urbanist heart of hearts,” Sorkin asked, “Do you think that was a good place for a gigantic football stadium?"

“In the world of reality, you have to pay for it, and if the Jets wouldn't agree to pay for it anywhere else, we wouldn't have it,” Garvin responded. While there was a good potential site at Sunnyside Yards, “the Jets didn't want to build there.”

(By that logic, the Nets should’ve been allowed to choose the site for a Brooklyn arena--at least as long as they were paying for it.)

The legacy of parks

Interviewer Rosalie Genevro, executive director of the Architectural League, suggested that the projects “that will probably be the great legacy of this decade will be the parks,” including Fresh Kills, Bronx River, High Line, Brooklyn Bridge, and Governors Island... that really change the experience of being in the city.”

That gave Garvin a chance to mention his new book Public Parks: The Key to Livable Communities.

“It gets back to my point: we should be looking at the public realm and stop telling people what to do with their property, except when that property impinges badly on the public realm,” he said.

He suggested that there’s no consistent relationship between what can be built around various subway stations.

And he returned to the megaprojects. “If you look at places like Atlantic Yards or Hudson Yards--if you don't have community facilities or open space or infrastructure to support the increase [in density], you shouldn't be increasing [it].”

Where to grow

Garvin was asked if he was alarmed by the closings of small businesses in Manhattan, often replaced by formula retail.

He said people were looking at only one slice of the city, rather than the growth potential in the outer boroughs. As he’s suggested before, light rail along 21st Street in Astoria--more than a mile from the subway--could open up an enormous amount of development, thus adding supply and relieving price pressure.

In Sunset Park, all along the waterfront, there’s “acres and acres of parking, empty loft buildings... that could be reused,” he said. “But it means rethinking land use patterns... We haven't done that. We've ossified.”

“The question is: can you pass laws that make it easy to use?” he asked, suggesting that removal of land use regulations could allow mixed uses. “The creativity of people in New York would be tremendous,” he said.

One solution: eliminating parking requirements. “Why do we need this, in the subway capital?”

(Indeed, taking off from a Garvin op-ed, I’ve called parking requirements for developments PlaNYC 1950.)

He added that such parking requirements are enormously frustrating for affordable housing developers.



    Hi, Norman, and thanks for this VERY interesting summary of the event!

    In particular I found Alexander Garvin's comments about the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan, particularly the reinstitution of Greenwich Street, to be quite interesting because, in a way, they perhaps provide an illustrative "smoking gun" with regard to the lack of genuine transparency -- or even an intelligent pro/con public discussion of the various important issues -- in the Lower Manhattan redevelopment process.

    As I've mentioned previously, including in at least one previous comment on the Atlantic Yards Report blog (which has been indirectly linked to in your current post), I think the reinstitution of Greenwich St. is, for various reasons, a rather serious mistake. For instance, given the peculiarities of THIS site, it has actually very few, if any, genuine benefits (e.g., given security concerns in the area, etc., this street is unlikely to work like a "real" street in any case). And the reinstitution of Greenwich St. also creates a number of serious negative ripple effects too (e.g., it makes busy West Street, on the western edge of the site, much more difficult to cross; it makes it necessary to create a network of underground pedestrian streets that are two stories below street level!; etc.).

    What kind of PUBLIC discussion /debate was there, however, about the possible pros and cons of such an important and far reaching decision? As far as I can tell, there was none.

    Three tidbits:

    1) At the very first public hearing held on the redevelopment process (at Pace University), I went up to Alexander Garvin afterwards (I had not had a chance to speak at the hearing itself becaue there were so many speakers and some of them talked so long, they ran out of time) and tried to suggest the consideration of at least some plans that would keep the superblock but correct its genuine faults (e.g., an important fault being the fact that the buildings, and thus the pedestrian streets between them, didn't line up with the surrounding blocks and streets). Given the fact that the entire site was to be totally rebuilt, however, such faults could be easily corrected, however -- just place the new buildings and streets to be built on the site so that they line up with the surrounding bocks and streets! (This wasn't my idea, by the way, but was something I read -- and initially resisted myself -- in the "New York Times Magazine" a short while after 9/11.)

    When I first approached Mr. Garvin, I identified myself as a fellow admirer of Jane Jacobs and said that I thought a case could be made for, in this instance, retaining a corrected version of the superblock. (By the way, in a 2004 interview in the "New Yorker," Jane Jacobs herself said that in THIS instance it might not be a bad idea to keep the superblock.) Mr. Garvin didn't seem interested in listening to this idea and said that this was actually not the right time in the process to talk about such an issue.

    When I asked him if this public hearing wasn't the right time, what was the right time, he "relented" and consented to "listen" to what I had to say. Although he didn't walk away, I got the feeling from his comments a few moments later that he hadn't really been listening or even been interested in listening.

    (To be continued.)


    2) At another stage in the process (and off hand I don't recall if this was before or after the public hearing), the LMDC supposedly welcomed the public to make suggestions about the redevelopment plans and the redevelopment process. I wrote a number of letters to LMDC Board members etc. (I'm not sure if I wrote to Garvin) and, if I remember correctly (I'd have to check my files), I suggested in these letters that at least one of the proposed plans be a corrected version of the original site plan.

    3) Many of those who've followed the redevelopment process will recall that at one point it was "discovered" that aspects of Liebeskind's symbolic plan wouldn't actually work in reality -- sunlight didn't fall where he said it would fall at a certain time. This problem was pointed out by a well-established architect, Eli Attia, an architect who designed, among other buldings, the Millenium Hotel which is across the street from the WTC site.

    Eli Attia also at one point proposed a plan for the WTC site that would have retained the superblock (but corrected its faults). It was not an officially sponsored plan (see more below), but could be viewed extensively on the Project Phoenix website, and the plan also got some publicity, especially in the community paper for Lower Manhattan, "the Downtown Express."

    Although Eli Attia is not a household name, he is a fairly established architect (and one who, unlike Liebeskind, had actually designed a number of skyscrapers) and was, according to a conversation I had with him in 2004(?), invited by Garvin to discuss the possibility of submitting a plan that would be part of the official process. Attia said he ultimately didn't get invited, however, basically because he was not in favor of reinstituting Greenwich St.

    So it seems to me that the decision was made by Mr. Garvin very early on in the process that Greewhich Street would be reinstituted -- and that no public discussion of this decision was really welcome.

    The pride that Garvin is now expressing in this aspect of the WTC redevelopment plan seems to lend even more weight to such an interpretation of the process. So thanks, Norman, for providing this additional tidbit in your reporting of this event.

    While I realize that your main interest is in reporting on the Atlantic Yards redevelopment process (which is, as you frequently point out, amazingly under-reported), I think it also helps to discuss this process in a wider context (which is what you actually quite often do). In this case, I think your reportage helps show that non-transparency is not confined, of course, to the Atlantic Yards process, but can even be found in a process that was, supposedly, a lot more open.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Friday, June 18, 2010, 9:38 p.m.


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