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RPA Assembly on Innovation and the Global City: the need to invest in infrastructure and human capital (what, not arenas?)

The Regional Plan Association's (RPA) 2011 Regional Assembly, “Innovation and the Global City,” held April 15 in New York City, which explored "what global cities, from Singapore to London, and from Stockholm to New York, are doing to remain competitive on the world stage."

In case you're wondering, building a new arena to recruit a sports team from a neighboring state was not a focus of the event.

A Jane Jacobs echo

Opening the Assembly, citing advances in information technology, the RPA's Thomas Wright commented, "Imagine just what Jane Jacobs would have accomplished if she had access to modern social media."

It was an echo of Aaron Naparstek's April 2006 comment to the New York Times: "If Jane Jacobs had the tools and technology back when she was fighting Robert Moses' plans to bulldoze Lower Manhattan, I bet 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities' would have been a blog.""

The Glaeser keynote

The libertarian-tinged Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, author of the new book Triumph of the City, gave the keynote.

He described how, even though the transportation cost advantages (rail, water) vanished for older cities, and productivity moved to cheaper, warmer cities, Detroit could not reinvent itself, but New York did, harnessing innovation in finance and other fields.

(Note that, as Slate architecture critic Witold Rybczynski pointed out in his review:
[Glaeser's] emphasis on human capital is important because politicians and planners tend to overvalue the physical environment. They encourage cities to look for the Next New Thing, whether it's pedestrian malls, downtown stadiums, iconic museums, or light rail.)

Edward Glaeser Keynote and Panel Discussion from Regional Plan Association on Vimeo.

Declining cities like Detroit, home of the little-used People Mover, do not need investments in infrastructure, as housing costs are less than new construction, Glaeser suggested. Infastructure is needed in growing regions.

The downside of having a city that succeeds is that it can become incredibly expensive, he said, segueing into a critique he's made of Jane Jacobs: that she believed "preserving older, shorter structures would somehow keep prices affordable for budding entrepreneurs."

That's not so, as blogger "Old Urbanist" pointed out in a response: Jacobs argued for a shifting mix of structures.

Predicting success

The panel after his speech raised some interesting question. The moderator, the RPA's Julia Vitullo-Martin, asked Lynne Sagalyn, author of the study Times Square Roulette, if we can know ahead of time if a project is going to be successful.

"The Times Square initiative," Sagalyn responded, "came out of the depths of that kind of [1070s] malaise that the city was suffering under, right after the fiscal crisis... The initiative to redevelop, to take a real estate strategy toward Times Square, was viewed as a likely success, for no other reason than all other strategies had failed." Previously, cities tried to legislate out pornography, then politically manage it.

Given that it was the first time city was going to use its condemnation powers for commercial redevelopment, it was extraordinarily risky. "This is not what politician generally do, enter into long term projects where they can't cut the ribbon in a number of years," she said.

The value of the land and the location, its adjacency to transportation, had always been fundamental to driving land values, Sagalyn noted. But it. ultimately took the city's power of condemnation and land assembly to unlock it. "It was the classic instance of the city using public powers."

So, I wonder, would it have required condemnation to unlock the value of the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard? Not for a project limited to the railyard.

But an arena would span beyond the railyard, so once the city and state agreed to back an arena, there were fewer potential places (though Forest City Ratner might have used its Atlantic Center Mall).

The deputy mayor

Vitullo-Martin turned to Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Robert Steel. She said she was very impressed with a comment he made, that it was the city's job not to find the next thing, but to create the conditions for it.

(Such a philosophy goes out the window, of course, when it comes to the scarce commodity of professional sports teams.)

What are the top priorities, and might even be the Times Square of the next generation, she asked.

Steel divided his answer into two categories: ongoing issues that can be finished, and long-term projects that can be launched. In the first category, he cited the reconstruction of Lower Manhattan, Bloomberg's plan to create and retain affordable housing, and the mayor's effort to increase park space and enhance quality of life.

Long-term plans, Steel said, include the repositioning of the waterfront--which, I'd add, has also cut into manufacturing--the city's "forward-looking" rezonings, and the effort to launch a new science and engineering university to complement what is actually "the college town of America."

Glaeser called the list "enormously sensible," as the "best local development strategy is to attract and train smart people." And, as much as he resists the urge to pick winners, Glaeser said applied sciences could be the latter-day equivalent of investments in land-grant colleges.

Steel noted that other cities compete with New York on quality of life--"I have three daughters in their twenties"--and "we have a disadvantage of cost of living; we have to compete with a robust lifestyle."

Costs of development

Vitullo-Martin pointed to Glaeser's citation of "the tendency to invoke barriers to building that make it so hard to provide new housing and new commercial space, and has very unfortunate effect of driving people elsewhere."

(One of those barriers suggested by Glaeser, unmentioned during the panel, is that preservation has gone too far. Preservationists think he's gone too far; here's a response from Landmarks 45.)

Sagalyn agreed that "the development cost issue" is significant, though not new. The city's rezonings, along with initiatives like Hudson Yards and the extension of the 7 subway line, are adding developable land around transportation. She said a streamlining of building regulations could speed development.

Caution from Burdett

The second keynote speaker, Richard Burdett, Professor of Urban Studies, London School of Economics, and Director, LSE Cities and Urban Age. was less optimistic than Glaeser.

Burdette pointed to photos of new cities in China with endless towers, which hardly resembles the urban form we prize, and the vast disparity of wealth in places like Sao Paulo, where the wealthy have swimming pools on their apartment terraces and nearby favela dwellers lack running water.

"When you enshrine difference like this, you do not get the vitality we were talking about in the previous session," Burdett declared.

Richard Burdett Keynote and Panel Discussion from Regional Plan Association on Vimeo.

Current cities overall are not sustainable, he said, so the question is how to design them to be sustainable, more like New York--dense, with public transit--than Phoenix, or Sao Paolo, where the wealthy use helicopters to commute.

Burdett cited innovations in Bogota, where the "mayor started building cycleways to absolutely nowhere," and now "they've become the veins of the informal city," and also replaced "this jumble of irregular traffic" with Bus Rapid Transit.

London vs. New York

He compared London and New York City, noting that the latter has an extra layer of government, the state.

"I'm not saying one is good or bad," he said carefully, "but it has certainly helped mayors of London, to have Transport for London under one roof" rather than, as in New York, relying on the state-controlled Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the bi-state Port Authority of NY/NJ.

"That's why [Mayor] Ken Livingstone, despite all advice not to do it, did introduce the congestion charge," he said, implicitly contrasting that with Mayor Mike Bloomberg's unsuccessful effort to get the state to pass congestion pricing.

The importance of infrastructure

Vitullo-Martin asked Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Chairman and CEO Jay Walder, who formerly led Transport for London, what lessons London has for New York.

Walder responded that Glaeser and Burdett provoked "both a sense of optimism and also a sense of concern" and suggested that both cities face similar challenges, notably rebuilding an aging infrastructure while developing new things.

"At the same time they're making very dramatic changes in the delivery of public services, they're confirming the need to invest," he said of London, suggesting that New York must remember to do both.

Burdett pointed out that such a commitment in London is recent, as the first elected mayor in London was instituted in 2000, leading to collaboration between city, metropolitan entity, and region.

Vitullo-Martin commented, "If we were to do a summary of the most important principles coming out of the two panels, Jay's elegant phrasing of 'confirming the need to invest' would be the most important principle."

She suggested that "New York is a very confident place, in many ways, but we've sort of lost our confidence in our ability to invest productively in public building."

Perhaps, I'd suggest, that's because we've too often shunted infrastructure to private entities.

Walder pointed out that the MTA has recovered remarkably, as "30 years ago, we had a transit system that was a national symbol of urban decay." He offered a dramatic statistic: in 1983, trains went only 7500 miles before breakdowns, while, at end of 2010, the comparable statistic was 170,000 miles.

Walder also observed that public-private partnerships have both been successes and failures. In one example of the former, he noted that a rail line to the Docklands was ahead of schedule, and Mayor Livingstone was "very upset, because there wasn't time to schedule the groundbreaking."

Burdette warned about "the seductiveness of the localism agenda," in which local residents try to exercise veto power over major projects.

He has a point; I'd suggest that when it comes to things like high-speed rail, there should be a presumption of public purpose, but basketball arenas built for private profit might get a tougher look.

The need for collaboration

Later that day, at a panel on governance, participants pointed to a new federal grant (document below), as City Limits reported 4/15/11, to support connections between housing and transit in New York City, Long Island, Westchester, and nearby Connecticut cities.

(What, no Newark? New Jersey dropped out of the proposal.)

City Limits reported:
Amanda Burden, New York City's planning commission chairperson, said the city would use its share of the grant with four goals in mind: creating new, mixed-income housing; improving "social equity"; achieving a cleaner environment and applying a "strategic approach to climate change."

The Metro-North corridor in the Bronx includes 14 stations along the railroad's Hudson and Harlem lines, some of which are located in areas affected by recent or pending rezoning that lay the groundwork for locating dense housing close to transit.

East New York is a once-forlorn area that has been transformed through community-led development. Burden says the area is "rich in mass transit," features strong community players and is located near an industrial business zone that offers a chance at locating workers close to jobs—a key goal of the Obama initiative, which links urban development to preserving open space.
Sustainable Communities


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