Skip to main content

Featured Post

Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park graphic: what's built/what's coming + FAQ (pinned post)

RPA's Yaro retires, "was ready to back unpopular causes" (but not to oppose Atlantic Yards)

Robert Yaro, the longtime head of the Regional Plan Association, the centrist planning group that has pushed for pragmatic development in a business-friendly way, will retire at the end of this year.

The Wall Street Journal reported 8/6/14, "Planning 'Oracle' Robert Yaro to Retire from Regional Group: Longtime Head of Planning Organization Was Ready to Back Unpopular Causes":
Mr. Yaro, 64 years old, came to the group in 1989 and became president in 2001, when he was thrust into the role of helping lower Manhattan rebuild after the terrorist attacks.
...The nonprofit association was founded 92 years ago to create a plan for the region—Long Island, southwestern Connecticut, northern New Jersey, the lower Hudson Valley and New York City—that was swelling with an immigrant population.
Mr. Yaro heightened the group's power to sway mayors and governors on policies including the construction of a new neighborhood on Manhattan's far West Side and the revival of a plan to build the Second Avenue subway line.
...Mr. Yaro wasn't afraid to propose changes that were unlikely to succeed—or seemed so—including those that rankled powerful politicians and business leaders.
He opposed the construction of a new football stadium for the New York Jets on the West Side, even though it was a favorite project of the then-mayor, Michael Bloomberg.
...The association instead proposed a mixed-use district, much like what eventually would become the Hudson Yards project that is now under construction.... Most recently, Mr. Yaro fought successfully to limit the permit for Madison Square Garden to 10 years at its site to help push the arena to move and make way for a new Penn Station.
What about Atlantic Yards?

The RPA, of course, picked its spots and on Atlantic Yards, however, it was more cautious. As I reported in August 2006, at the hearing on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the RPA offered a convoluted statement, criticizing the process and Phase 2 but essentially endorsing the arena block and the project because something big would be (and should be) built there anyway.

In 2009, when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was considering relaxing the deal to sell Vanderbilt Yard development rights to Forest City Ratner, the RPA suggested a tradeoff: that the MTA should claim more future revenues from Forest City, and a new ESDC subsidiary should oversee the project. The wise suggestion was ignored.

Yaro's Atlantic Yards defense

In a chapter titled "Metropolitanism: How Metropolitan Planning Has Been Shaped by and Reflected in the Plans of the Regional Plan Association," part of the 2012 book Planning Ideas That Matter, Yaro offered a defense of the RPA's stand on Atlantic Yards.

It was not because some board members had ties to the real estate industry, he wrote:
What really drove the RPA's position on the Yards was the staff's belief that this strategic location, near downtown Brooklyn, with its high concentration of subway and commuter rail lines, was an appropriate place for high-density residential and commercial development.
But there was also politics involved:
In addition, the RPA had just completed a contentious but successful campaign to oppose the Bloomberg administration's proposal for a football stadium on Manhattan's West Side. The RPA staff and board also felt that the RPA could not be "against everything" and would have to choose its battles carefully. Nor did they relish the thought of another confrontation with City Hall on the heels of the West Side stadium fight, in light of the mayor's strong support for both the stadium and the Atlantic Yards project.
The RPA's leadership also felt that the Yards project was a "done deal" because of the strong support from both the mayor and the governor. And unlike the stadium project, there was no chance of overturning the Yards project in the legislature.
Well, technically, there was a chance, if Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver had decided to exercise his veto as a member of the Public Authorities Control Board.

But Silver, once he learned there would be little or no office space to compete with his Lower Manhattan district, and thanks to indirect ties to (and later support from) Forest City Ratner), chose not to do so.

Yaro continues:
For all these reasons, the RPA made the decision to focus on improving the project's site plan and public spaces, reducing its visual impact on adjoining communities, and improving the developer's payment to the MTA for the purchase of air rights over the Atlantic Terminal station area. The project subsequently received all of its necessary permits, despite opposition from several civic and community groups.
Yes, RPA issued some important advice, but there's no evidence it took. Most notably, RPA later made the case for oversight and governance, but it didn't make the issue a priority. As of this June, there will be an Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation, with appointees yet to be named.

Yaro's farewell

He wrote:
Dear friends,
I'm writing to let you know that after 25 wonderful years as Regional Plan Association's president, I will be retiring at the end of this year. The executive committee of RPA’s board of directors has recommended that Tom Wright, RPA’s executive director, succeed me as president. I will continue to play a role at RPA in the coming years as senior advisor and president emeritus, consulting with the staff and board on major policy concerns.
I’m delighted to be turning over the leadership of the organization at a time when its work and operations are thriving: RPA is conducting groundbreaking research on a wide range of issues, our staff is growing as we continue work on the Fourth Regional Plan, and our expertise is highly valued by policy makers and our peers, here and around the world. Tom and our talented professional staff are ready to take on the new challenges that RPA and the region will face in the coming years.
Our work has played a crucial role in the region's resurgence over the past quarter century, helping the political, business and civic leadership to tackle major challenges since the 1980s.
It's hard to even remember now that in 1989, when I returned to New York to lead RPA's Third Regional Plan, the bottom had dropped out of the region's economy. Grand Central Terminal and Times Square were homeless encampments, crime and housing abandonment were rampant in many places, the transit system was struggling to emerge from generations of neglect, the region's water supplies were at risk, and many parks and public spaces were unsafe and neglected. The region had lost confidence in its future, and had barely invested in new infrastructure in half a century.
RPA has played a vital role in addressing these concerns. We have led efforts to invest in big infrastructure systems, including the first major expansions in the regional transit system since World War II. We helped craft plans to rebuild Lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center following 9/11. Our proposals for transforming Hudson Yards into a new mixed-use district are well under way. We worked hard to protect public water supplies and open spaces in the Long Island Pine Barrens, New York's upstate watersheds and the New Jersey Highlands. The transformation of Governors Island and the New York Harbor shoreline into great new waterfront public spaces is far along. All these changes have made our region more livable.
These and other achievements provide a legacy upon which to build the region's future. And much remains to be done: Penn Station is a national disgrace, new rail tunnels are desperately needed under the Hudson River, our airports need to be modernized, our public authorities must be reformed, a growing share of our population can't afford rising rents, and we are just beginning to grapple with climate change. Once again, the region will need to reinvent itself to face these challenges. That is why RPA is undertaking the Fourth Regional Plan. I am confident that with your help, Tom Wright and the organization’s talented staff will lead the way forward.
More from Yaro's Metropolitanism chapter

He writes:
Metropolitanism is a school of planning thought that promotes urban development in a continuum from the central city to its periphery by diffusing and promoting density and growth within a defined regional boundaries... It has been opposed since its early stages by proponents of "regionalism," a view that promotes the dispersed development of satellite cities in a region.
...Over time, what has come to be known as metropolitanism has changed its emphasis and has moved from promoting development from the center of the metropolitan area outward to promoting growth in a series of centers within the region....
The tradition that led to new metropolitan plans in West Coast cities like Portland and Salt Lake City, have used a process of extensive civic engagement" to build support for things like "more compact, transit-oriented development patterns."

Yaro traces that tradition to the 1929 Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs, which the RPA was incorporated to implement. (The plan was the work of a predecessor ad hoc committee.)

Now the RPA's regional plans (the second was in 1969, the third in 1996) aim at the 31-county NY-NJ-CT Metropolitan Region.

Yaro notes that political power, however, is not on the side of metropolitanism, citing anti-urbanism, federalism, entrenched localism, the city-suburb divide, and an anti-metropolitan bias. But he says there's "no clear alternative to managing large urban systems outside a metropolitan framework."

The Second Regional Plan identified a dozen regional center that could be major mixed-use employment centers connected by rail and promoted "important mixed use, high-density urban nodes on top of major transit hubs," which inspired the World Trade Center, Citicorp Center, and other projects.

The Third Regional Plan, A Region at Risk, looked at innovations in other world cities and proposed ways to adopt and replicate them in New York. That inspired the Second Avenue Subway and the East Side Access projects, as well as Access to the Region's Core, a Hudson rail tunnel nixed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

The RPA also proposed integration and expansion of separate commuter rail and subway networks--and idea yet to be achieved. (Think about how affordability in the regional might be enhanced if the PATH train connected to the NYC subway.)