Skip to main content

Featured Post

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

In Bloomberg biography, generous, misleading treatment of Atlantic Yards, arena, and rezoning policies

It's no surprise, as I wrote two years ago surveying books on the mayoralties of Mike Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio, that the history and even key facts regarding a project like Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park get mangled, or analyzed poorly.

That's what happens, I guess, when book-writers take a long look at a complex subject: some aspects just won't get full insight, and reliance on a wobbly clip file can make it worse.

Let's consider The Many Lives of Michael Bloomberg, a mostly admiring biography by Eleanor Randolph, a former member of the New York Times Editorial Board. It's interesting and at times insightful, but also falls short in describing and analyzing Bloomberg's mayoralty, including glancing mentions of Atlantic Yards.

Part of that is by design: Randolph was aiming at a full biography of a man with, indeed, many lives. So she didn't aim at a comprehensive analysis. Moreover, her reliance on the work of Times colleagues didn't help.

But it's too generous toward his personality and policies and would, if Bloomberg resurfaces as a presidential candidate (which CNBC reports is a possibility), give him an unfair boost. See David Dayen's critique of Bloomberg's potential candidacy in The American Prospect.

One trivial, yet still telling, piece of hagiography: Bloomberg is not 5'8" but rather, at best 5'7", as he described himself in a 2006 Times article. I'm a bit over 5'7" and the few times I got near him thought he was shorter. Does he look more than two inches taller than the 5'5" Marty Markowitz here?

The framing

Credit Randolph for skillful framing: she shows how those who, in 2001, thought Bloomberg' candidacy was a vanity effort underestimated his money, savvy, and drive, and how his positioning as "a leader, not a politician" coincided with the city's needs after 9/11.

Though Bloomberg was a self-admitted liberal on social issues, he had three advantages: not just 9/11, but an inattentive press that didn't take him seriously enough, and a Democratic opponent in Mark Green, "an arrogant and abrasive man" who divided his party . Bloomberg got a belated endorsement from Rudy Giuliani, whose unenthusiastic mumble was turned into a campaign ad.

Bloomberg's energy and ambition is such that he neither rests on successes nor broods about failures, Randolph writes--a lack of introspection that 2009 biographer Joyce Purnick portrayed more coolly.

On development issues

Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff wanted his ally, urban planning scholar Alex Garvin, as chair of the City Planning Commission, while Bloomberg's deputy Patti Harris wanted Amanda Burden. This was previously reported in Chris McNickle's Bloomberg book, but Randolph adds a piquant detail, amid a misreading:
Amanda Burden would earn the name "Demanda" for her forceful control over design and open space as Bloomberg's planning  commissioner. But she also doggedly pursued that first citywide rezoning in forty years. It was a crucial gift to those who wanted more stability from the city before they began to invest.
WTF? There was no citywide rezoning, but rather a series of rezonings, some upzonings, some downzonings.

The latter were deterrents to investment, while the former were not merely adding "stability" but rather enormously increased development rights, such as in Downtown Brooklyn and the Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront, crucially without requiring mandatory affordable housing in reciprocation, a big mistake in retrospect that Randolph doesn't address.

A range of successes

Randolph cites numerous successes, including a balanced budget, lowered crime and incarceration, public health improvements (smoking ban, letter grades for restaurants), and mayoral control of schools and increased teacher salaries. He defended Muslims and pushed for same sex marriage

She cites new parks, plazas, and bike-welcoming streets, plus the extension to the Number 7 subway line to Hudson Yards. That deserves but does not get a crucial asterisk: a plan for an intermediate stop, at 41st Street and 10th Avenue, never came to fruition.

The building boom

She writes:
His team rezoned nearly twelve thousand blocks, or almost 40 percent of the city, including many waterfront or industrial areas that were underused and often dangerous or dilapidated. With new zoning and other encouragements like parks, schools, and tax breaks, a building boom followed in every borough. The Times tracked forty thousand new buildings of all sizes including clusters of skyscrapers in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. 'Bloom Town,' some of the mayor's fans call his city"
Bloom Town, really?

While Bloomberg canceled his predecessor's plans for new Mets and Yankee stadiums, decrying "corporate welfare," she writes, "In later, fatter years, he would relent and give city support to help build these two stadiums, plus another one in Brooklyn."

That's a rather potted history, since those plans, for example, included the takeover of a public park to build a new stadium for the Yankees, and Bloomberg quietly doubled the direct subsidy for the Brooklyn arena.

About the arena

She writes:
In Brooklyn, Bloomberg and his team supported the building of the Barclays Center, an arena that would eventually be attached to a business and residential complex. It was a classic development above and near a transit hub, but it drew plenty of opposition from old-line Brooklyn residents. They argued that the traffic on game days--it would be the home for the Brooklyn Nets--could suffocate the entire area. And there was widespread concern about one proposed design that looked like the upended half of a huge barrel before a new round of architects from SHoP created a giant bird's nest, as much sculpture as architecture. The Barclays Center also had plenty of government help (estimates ran to more than $2 billion in city and state benefits by 2008, four-plus years before it opened). Bloomberg was so pleased with the project and its prospects for giving the city another financial boost that he held his last State of the City speech at the arena.
Wait a sec. It was by no means merely a "classic development," but it represented the inside maneuvering of a locally powerful real-estate firm, which got the state to override city zoning, and to declare a gentrifying area blighted.

The "business" complex--originally four office towers around the arena, allowing the developer to promote "10,000 jobs"--soon became a mostly residential complex.

And while residents did warn about traffic on game days--remember, lots of New Jersey fans of the Nets were once expected to drive--the "widespread concern" (among the chattering class?) about the "airplane hangar" design was far less than the concern over the project's unsavory conception and process.

There's no mention of Bloomberg's support for the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement, a type of deal he later denounced. Also, I don't think he held his State of the City address at Barclays because of its prospect for a financial boost--after all, there's been little evidence of that--but rather because the new arena was an edifice for which he could claim credit.

What about those $2 billion in city and state benefits? That came from project critic Michael White in the New York Post, a calculation I found useful but also debatable. Randolph makes no effort to grapple with the number, which if valid in whole or even in part, casts huge doubt on the rationale for the project.

An alternate framing ignored

It's disappointing that Randolph cites in her bibliography Julian Brash's illuminating 2011 book Bloomberg's New York: Class and Governance in the Luxury City, but otherwise ignores it in her analysis.

From that book's description:
He describes the mayor's attitude toward governance as the Bloomberg Way-a philosophy that holds up the mayor as CEO, government as a private corporation, desirable residents and businesses as customers and clients, and the city itself as a product to be branded and marketed as a luxury good.
Commonly represented as pragmatic and nonideological, the Bloomberg Way, Brash argues, is in fact an ambitious reformulation of neoliberal governance that advances specific class interests. He considers the implications of this in a blow-by-blow account of the debate over the Hudson Yards plan, which aimed to transform Manhattan's far west side into the city's next great high-end district.
Given what we now know about Hudson Yards, Brash's framing seems prescient.