Skip to main content

From "Intractable Democracy," the tension between regional and local; also, RPA's Marshall sees power imbalance as source of (discredited) superblocks

In Intractable Democracy: Fifty Years of Community-Based Planning, a new collection of articles and interviews by and with people associated with the Pratt Institute City and Regional Planning Program, there's an intriguing article by Michael Flynn, director of capital planning at the New York City Department of Transportation.

As a community planner turned city bureaucrat, Flynn knows well the tension between bottom-up planning and municipal power, and knows that it's not easy to resolve.

He muses:
One thing that's become clear to me over time (and I can hear the cries of "Sellout!" now) is that there is an interesting tension between the concept of community-based planning and the institution of government in general. It's the same tension we're all familiar with between the archetypes of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. We humans clearly organized ourselves into societies, and evolved government to tackle problems that must be addressed collectively and to look out for the common good. As planners we understand from experience that some issues are too spread out, too interlinked, or to "acute costs, diffuse benefits" to be tackled at a granular level. Sometimes the good of the many must trump the good of the few, or the regional must trump the local.

On the other hand, what good is government if it's not responsive to the needs of communities. What good is power without a grounding in real hopes, real concerns, real lives? At least when it comes to local issues, who better to decide the fate of a community than the locals themselves? The question is, where is the proper balance between community-based planning and getting things done for the greater good? For example, is it more important that the city have a citywide, interlinked network of bike paths, or should communities who don't want bike lanes have the final say? Should we price on-street parking higher because it's been proven to improve turnover and reduce congestion, or acquiesce to local businesses who think cheaper parking will improve foot traffic?

These are questions that localities everywhere face not just New York City. I sure don't know the answer--like most things, it probably lies somewhere in between the extremes.
The AY angle

These questions came up, of course, with Atlantic Yards. Issues like affordable housing and the siting of a major sports facility are not merely local issues. But they have disproportionate local impact, so a planning process should take into account local considerations, as well the balance between public and private benefits.

Remember, in the Times yesterday, As Stadiums Vanish, Their Debt Lives On, offered this truism:
Rather than confront teams, they have often buckled when owners — usually threatening to move — have demanded that the public pay for new suites, parking or arenas and stadiums.

With state and local budgets stretched by the recession, politicians are only now starting to look askance at privately held teams trying to tap the public till.
Instead, we got a process that involved a take-it-or-leave-it plan, tweaked at the margins, with the form, but not the actual function, of local participation.

And that's how a massive surface parking lot is planned, and how the state gave away arena naming rights.

The superblock prevails

Musing about why the Atlantic Yards plan and other megaprojects contain superblocks, even though they're discredited, Alex Marshall of the Regional Plan Association, writing in January 2008, pointed ultimately to an imbalance in political power:
One partial answer is all the emphasis in the last few years on protecting against terrorism. Setbacks for more prominent buildings are often larger now, to allow for the placement of bollards and other protective measures. But there is a certain lack of logic here. After all, most New York City buildings do not have enormous setbacks from the street, so pushing that for newer buildings hardly deprives a terrorist of potential targets.

A stronger explanation lies in finance and issues of political power, I'm convinced. Large concentrations of money affect development here disproportionately, and such large concentrations of money often favor having large concentrations of land to work with. While it may be a disservice to the city to have a large, island-like superblock--traffic flow is disrupted, walking and bicycling trips are made more difficuly--to the developer, a superblock allows for wide floor plates and campus-like settings that would not otherwise be possible. And since the government sector is weak, large developers often end up doing what suits them first, not the public.

One relatively easy way to promote the creation of fewer new superblocks is to make the promotion of a finer-grained street grid one of the specific criteria by which a project is judged when under development review. I sense this is not now the case.
Not only that, the superblock on the southeast end of the Atlantic Yards site allows a formerly public street to be incorporated into open space; otherwise, with the enormous expected increase of population, the ratio of people to open space would be significantly skewed.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Barclays Center/Levy Restaurants hit with suit charging discrimination on disability, race; supervisors said to use vicious slurs, pursue retaliation

The Daily News has an article today, Barclays Center hit with $5M suit claiming discrimination against disabled, while the New York Post headlined its article Barclays Center sued over taunting disabled employees.

While that's part of the lawsuit, more prominent are claims of racial discrimination and retaliation, with black employees claiming repeated abuse by white supervisors, preferential treatment toward Hispanic colleagues, and retaliation in response to complaints.

Two individual supervisors, for example, are charged with  referring to black employees as “black motherfucker,” “dumb black bitch,” “black monkey,” “piece of shit” and “nigger.”

Two have referred to an employee blind in one eye as “cyclops,” and “the one-eyed guy,” and an employee with a nose disorder as “the nose guy.”

There's been no official response yet though arena spokesman Barry Baum told the Daily News they, but take “allegations of this kind very seriously” and have "a zero tolerance policy for…

Behind the "empty railyards": 40 years of ATURA, Baruch's plan, and the city's diffidence

To supporters of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project, it's a long-awaited plan for long-overlooked land. "The Atlantic Yards area has been available for any developer in America for over 100 years,” declared Borough President Marty Markowitz at a 5/26/05 City Council hearing.

Charles Gargano, chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, mused on 11/15/05 to WNYC's Brian Lehrer, “Isn’t it interesting that these railyards have sat for decades and decades and decades, and no one has done a thing about them.” Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco, in a 12/19/04 New York Times article ("In a War of Words, One Has the Power to Wound") described the railyards as "an empty scar dividing the community."

But why exactly has the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard never been developed? Do public officials have some responsibility?

At a hearing yesterday of the Brooklyn Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee, Kate Suisma…

Barclays Center event June 11 to protest plans to expand Israeli draft; questions about logistics

At right is a photo of a poster spotted in Hasidic Williamsburg right. Clearly there's an event scheduled at the Barclays Center aimed at the Haredi Jewish community (strict Orthodox Jews who reject secular culture), but the lack of English text makes it cryptic.

The website Matzav.com explains, Protest Against Israeli Draft of Bnei Yeshiva Rescheduled for Barclays Center:
A large asifa to protest the drafting of bnei yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel into the Israeli army that had been set to take place this month will instead be held on Sunday, 17 Sivan/June 11, at the Barclays Center in Downtown Brooklyn, NY. So attendees at a big gathering will protest an apparent change of policy that will make it much more difficult for traditional Orthodox Jewish students--both Hasidic (who follow a rebbe) and non-Hasidic (who don't)--to get deferments from the draft. Comments on the Yeshiva World website explain some of the debate.

The logistical questions

What's unclear is how large the ev…

Atlanta's Atlantic Yards moves ahead

First mentioned in April, the Atlantic Yards project in Atlanta is moving ahead--and has the potential to nudge Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn further down in Google searches.

According to a 5/30/17 press release, Hines and Invesco Real Estate Announce T3 West Midtown and Atlantic Yards:
Hines, the international real estate firm, and Invesco Real Estate, a global real estate investment manager, today announced a joint venture on behalf of one of Invesco Real Estate’s institutional clients to develop two progressive office projects in Atlanta totalling 700,000 square feet. T3 West Midtown will be a 200,000-square-foot heavy timber office development and Atlantic Yards will consist of 500,000 square feet of progressive office space in two buildings. Both projects are located on sites within Atlantic Station in the flourishing Midtown submarket.
Hines will work with Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture (HPA) as the design architect for both T3 West Midtown and Atlantic Yards. DLR Group will be t…

Not quite the pattern: Greenland selling development sites, not completed condos

Real Estate Weekly, reporting on trends in Chinese investment in New York City, on 11/18/15 quoted Jim Costello, a senior vice president at research firm Real Capital Analytics:
“They’re typically building high-end condos, build it and sell it. Capital return is in a few years. That’s something that is ingrained in the companies that have been coming here because that’s how they’ve grown in the last 35 years. It’s always been a development game for them. So they’re just repeating their business model here,” he said. When I read that last November, I didn't think it necessarily applied to Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, now 70% owned (outside of the Barclays Center and B2 modular apartment tower), by the Greenland Group, owned significantly by the Shanghai government.
A majority of the buildings will be rentals, some 100% market, some 100% affordable, and several--the last several built--are supposed to be 50% market/50% subsidized. (See tentative timetable below.)

Selling development …

Forest City acknowledges unspecified delays in Pacific Park, cites $300 million "impairment" in project value; what about affordable housing pledge?

Updated Monday Nov. 7 am: Note follow-up coverage of stock price drop and investor conference call and pending questions.

Pacific Park Brooklyn is seriously delayed, Forest City Realty Trust said yesterday in a news release, which further acknowledged that the project has caused a $300 million impairment, or write-down of the asset, as the expected revenues no longer exceed the carrying cost.

The Cleveland-based developer, parent of Brooklyn-based Forest City Ratner, which is a 30% investor in Pacific Park along with 70% partner/overseer Greenland USA, blamed the "significant impairment" on an oversupply of market-rate apartments, the uncertain fate of the 421-a tax break, and a continued increase in construction costs.

While the delay essentially confirms the obvious, given that two major buildings have not launched despite plans to do so, it raises significant questions about the future of the project, including:
if market-rate construction is delayed, will the affordable h…

"There is no alternative": DM Glen on de Blasio's affordable housing strategy

As I've written, Mayor Bill de Blasio sure knows how to steer and spin coverage of his affordable housing initiatives.

Indeed, his latest announcement, claiming significant progress, came with a pre-press release op-ed in the New York Daily News and then a friendly photo-op press conference with an understandably grateful--and very lucky--winner of an affordable housing lottery.

To me, though, the most significant quote came from Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, who, as the Wall Street Journal reported:
said public housing had been “starved” of federal support for years now, leaving the city with fewer ways of creating affordable housing. “Are we relying too heavily on the private sector?” she said. “There is no alternative.” Though Glen was using what she surely sees as a common-sense phrase, it recalls the slogan of a politician with whom I doubt de Blasio identifies: former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a Conservative who believed in free markets.

It suggests the limits to …