Roll back in time to the fall of 2007. The City Planning Commission was having hearings on alternative plans to accommodate the expansion of Columbia University into West Harlem. One plan was the community’s plan. That other plan, which had caught up with it, was Columbia’s.
Here is a letter I furnished the City Planning Commission with respect to its hearing held October 3, 2007. (The letter didn’t have the pictures added here.) As stated therein I went with an open mind and perhaps more predisposed to Columbia’s plan. The community’s plan was presented well but it was very likely Columbia’s presentation that did the most to make me extremely uneasy with what they were asking for.
Eventually, my feelings of concern and opposition grew stronger and that is when I wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Sun, Columbia Pulls a Kelo, December 20, 2007
That piece focuses in on the troublesome industry of eminent domain abuse. It is essentially the testimony I gave before the City Council the preceding day.
After my written testimony below was delivered, I delivered oral testimony before the City Planning Commission at a follow up hearing. There I noted that not many days before, at the Municipal Art Society I asked Columbia’s president Bollinger what should be the standard for saying `No’ to Columbia in favor of the community?” He responded (video available) equating use of eminent domain to effect transfers of private property to Columbia with road and park creation, an equation with which I do not agree. He also asserted that Columbia’s plan trumps the community’s because of its realism. I told them I didn’t buy that either.
The Columbia plan is predicated upon seeing speculatively into the future. It entails an immediate shifting of rights, benefits, and expectations of real estate wealth to Columbia because someone looked into a crystal ball. The community plan provides a framework to move forward into the future with steps being taken and negotiated in a familiar and time-tested fashion.
(It is not possible to provide the letter below with its original formatting.)
October 12, 2007
Hon. Commissioners of
The New York City Planning Commission
22 Reade Street
New York, New York 10007-1216
Re: Commission’s Wednesday, October 3, 2007 Hearing on Alternative Proposed Plans Accommodating the Proposed Expansion of Columbia University into Manhattanville
This is to provide comment on the two alternative plans for the proposed expansion of Columbia University into the West Harlem neighborhood known as Manhattanville which were the subject of the Commission’s Wednesday, October 3, 2007 hearing. I offer my comment as an urban planner (I have a masters degree) and real estate development lawyer with substantial background in public finance and subsidized housing, including, from the government side as a senior state government official, such things as ESDC condemnations and overrides. My comments are based mostly on evaluating information and statements presented at the hearing which I attended in full. I went to the hearing desiring to be more fully informed about the plans and expecting to be more predisposed toward the 197-c plan sponsored by Columbia University than not. I came away from the hearing less of that mind. (I admit that I am also influenced by having Jane Jacobs somewhat on my mind these days.)
Reiterating the background for those unfamiliar with it who may read this letter: The City Planning Commission spent an extended day hearing and taking public comment for two alternative plans for the proposed expansion of Columbia University into the West Harlem neighborhood known as Manhattanville. One plan that accommodates the university’s expansion into the area is a community generated 197-a plan. The community plan proposes the expansion of Columbia University in an NYU style expansion whereby the University would be interwoven into the community. Columbia University is proposing, under 197-c, an expansion plan of its own design that would not comply with the community-sponsored plan. The Columbia plan would make use of condemnation and its threat as a tool for the university to prevail over competing property interests. (The Commission will be taking written comment from the public until October 15th.)
In providing my comments, I point out certain elucidating parallels between the proposed Columbia expansion and another project currently of exceeding prominence in the public mind. In my summing up I deal with one of the most important reasons a responsible consciousness of the Atlantic Yard project is unavoidable.
The controversiality of the two competing plans involves many issues and factors in common with Atlantic Yards.
1. Two Alternative Kinds of University Expansion. In big picture terms it is again a contest between:
a. a proposed massive-scale megadevelopment plan backed by powerful interests centered outside the community seeking to invoke eminent domain to achieve it purposes (“zoning and planning for sale”), and
b. a community that, while supporting development along the general lines of what is proposed is seeking something more consistent with preserving existing neighborhood fabric and vitality (“organic development”).
2. Overall Design Qualities. There are almost inevitable comparable questions of design which is a given since each situation involves a proposal for mega-development on a grand “city making” scale, though, on balance, the expansion plan Columbia is proposing is probably a more defensible project with better design than Atlantic Yards.
a. The plan Columbia is promoting for itself is more defensible in the following ways:
i. It continues through streets
ii. In addition, to the existing through streets that it continues, the Columbia design adds what is in essence a new cross street exclusively for pedestrian use.
iii. It has a higher percentage of true open space which is better designed
iv. Is in an area more in need of development
v. It has the public enhancement of a premier university as its purpose.
vi. It does not directly displace low income people housed in the area without providing them comparable housing after they move.
vii. It aspires to sustainable design principles. Columbia stated that it was going for a Silver certification (Gold and Platinum is higher, of course.) And, following suit of other colleges, Columbia is pledging to its students and community that it will by a future date be reducing its overall carbon emissions. (Green, sort of like affordable housing, is an often used sales point these days.)
viii. It hides the facility's more “noxious” needs —— like parking, loading docks and energy equipment —— allowing the campus itself to be serene.
b. The ways in which the design is poor in the same ways:
i. Monopolistic monotony of ownership and design and a monoculture of purpose and uses for the neighborhood. The Columbia project would be 35 acres of monoculture. Atlantic Yards is proposed to be 22 acres plus another two existing adjacent superblocks owned by the megadeveloper taking it up to a similar total acreage.
ii. Destruction of existing landmark and old buildings.
iii. Repetitive floor templates for replicated buildings to be built within the same approximate time frame.
iv. Failure to integrate with and make use of the vitality of the existing neighborhood fabric.
c. Both this and the design for Atlantic Yards concede to the most prevalent conventional wisdom by envisioning retail at ground level of the buildings but the Columbia design is better in this regard in that it has continuous active edges along which the retail would be arranged. The Atlantic Yards design perhaps has a slight advantage of being associated with a slightly better mixture of other uses (office, hotel and residential) that would tend to make that retail active at more times of the day.
3. Arguments for Style of Development. The questions asked by the Commissioners at the hearing, particularly those they asked of Columbia, and the additional information they requested reflected an awareness that the University is basically asserting only two reasons why the University should:
a. not be steered towards an NYU style of development where the University and community owned land would be intermixed, and
b. be able to pursue a plan founded upon eminent domain.
Those two reasons are:
c. The University’s plan to construct a project over a central underground “bathtub” which would put 25% of the project’s bulk underground. The bathtub is proposed to be of varying depths and design depending where it is but it basically is to be under almost the entire 35 acre megaproject except for the “donut hole” under the Studebaker building, an old landmark building that will be preserved. The described purpose of the bathtub is not just to reduce the above-ground bulk but to hide the project’s more “noxious” needs, like parking, loading docks and energy equipment, and reduce the number of curb cuts by allowing for underground movement of vehicles, thereby allowing the campus above-ground buildings to be more serene. The shape of the bathtub, to an extent, works around what is there. To an extent it does not. It mostly works around the shape of the bedrock, tending to be more shallow in places to avoid blasting and going deeper where blasting will not be necessary. Though the design tries to avoid blasting destruction of physical bedrock, the community fabric and existing buildings are not treated as having, metaphorically speaking, any similar bedrock status, which as Jane Jacobs might express it is not to be “exploded.” (Out of all the buildings in the 200-year-old community Columbia proposes to preserve just 3.) The design works around the Studebaker donut hole. The other two buildings are outside the periphery of the bathtub. The design of the bathtub does not work around Sheffield Stable. Sheffield Stable, which is federally landmarked, is at the corner of the bathtub. It is not near any proposed curb cut entrance into the bathtub. One of the Skidmore architects on hand at the hearing indicated that it could be notched out of the bathtub without consequence to the traffic within the proposed tub.
Whether it is good or necessary*, the bathtub with its design underlying essentially all of the megaproject, is like the proposed elimination of streets at the Atlantic Yards project. The proposed elimination of streets at Atlantic Yards is very bad urban planning but it is likely being pursued for a number of self-serving reasons, including that it contributes to an impression of megaproject’s indivisibility into what could readily proceed as several smaller projects (The attached appendix covers in depth ill-founded reasons for elimination of streets at Atlantic Yards.) (* Jane Jacobs in examining traffic solutions, including "post officing" and time shifts and vertical grade separations wrote: "Except in the most intensively used central downtown areas, it hardly seems that the service complications accompanying thoroughgoing separation of pedestrians and vehicles are justified.")
d. The second reason is the University’s assertion that all the buildings in the megadevelopment must generate rectilinear floor plates of 25,000 square feet each. This is based on the University’s asserted analysis that 25,000 square feet supports the current fashion in arranging research floors based on the number of support people who these days are assigned to individual research teams. Many of the University’s older buildings have different layouts reflecting the fashion of floor plates of yore. The replication of repetitive buildings all constructed at the same time is very un-Jane Jacobs! Columbia is constructing a huge number of buildings with the same or very similar floor plates. Atlantic Yards involves the roughly contemporaneous design and eventual building of many buildings with somewhat similar, but not identical floor plates. The EIS creates similar maximum heights for the Columbia buildings. There is a question as to whether they will all be built at those heights (or how many will).
e. There is another purported constraint which the University says indirectly supports the invocation of the preceding two. That is the assertion that the University is endeavoring to meet the community’s need for limitation of building height in the area. Without limitation of building height, more bulk could be above ground instead of in the bathtub and taller buildings could deliver more of the replicated floorplate. There may be fruitful ground for a compromise here. Many of the existing buildings, if preserved would provide substantial bulk and perhaps quite usable floor plates but they would probably be shorter than desired. Being shorter they would allow sunlight and a relief from any canyon-like feel if other taller buildings were built around them. They could be interspersed with buildings with precisely the floorplates desired which, depending upon how tall there were, would replicate that floor plate quite a number times while reaching approximately the same overall neighborhood density.
The two invoked reasons for proceeding in megaproject fashion must be carefully scrutinized because if they do not sustain themselves under examination, the only other reason that comes to mind for the University to seek the ability to expand through condemnations is indefensible. That reason would be that the university wants to use condemnation as a tool against those properties and uses in the community that are so economically vital that they are unwilling to sell at prices that Columbia is willing to pay. While intuitively it might be understood why condemnation would be pursued for such a reason, it is not necessarily in the interest of a university to do so because it prevents the university from being part of an economically integrated and vital community.
4. Narrative to be Assessed. As with Atlantic Yards, the community has raised questions about the narrative offered by the mega-developer and whether it sacrifices accuracy to promote a tale which is self-servingly calculated to be more suitable for public consumption and promoting the approvals sought.
a. The community has asserted that there is an anomaly in that the Columbia plan has been promoted as necessary to serve an undergraduate population. They point out that, initially, no undergraduate facilities are being built at the development.
b. The community is questioning the University’s contention the bathtub has to be of such an extensive design, whether more couldn’t be done on a smaller scale utilizing tunnels instead. In other words whether it is a fictive defense of proceeding with the megadevelopment as a single project just as the Atlantic Yards megadeveloper has fictively defended the need for that to be single project.
5. Affordable Housing. As with Atlantic Yards there is the issue of housing. The project will directly displace low-income residents currently living in the area and it is projected that its economic effects will also indirectly displace residents living near. The University is promising to relocate all residents directly displaced. The University is promising to put $20 million in funds for other housing which they are looking for some other entity to administer. The megadevelopment will provide housing for students and faculty but no affordable housing for other populations. In the case of Atlantic Yards, those being directly displaced will not be able to afford to live in the megadevelopoment being built. Part of the megadevelpoment will provide affordable housing but at a square foot cost higher than the market rate housing that is being developed and by intercepting subsidies that would have had other more useful destinies.
6. Gentrification. Perhaps more than Atlantic Yards, the Columbia expansion presents the issue of gentrification. Gentrification will be an issue at the University site no matter whether the University’s own plan or the community-endorsed plan is pursued. Gentrification does drive out those that do not ride the rising tide. Some in the community oppose gentrification. An article in the New York Times stated, whether accurately or not, that “The greatest fear of West Harlem residents is that they'll eventually be driven out.” But reporting which concentrates too much on such fear or opposition does the disservice of confusing what are the most essential issues. The Community plan accommodates Columbia expansion and therefore gentrification. Also, opposition to gentrification is not a position to which the larger society is fully sympathetic. However readily it is mentioned, it is well understood that the flip side of individual misfortunes that occur during gentrification is rising prosperity in and renewal of the gentrifying neighborhood. The real story from the community’s standpoint is not the way in which prices will rise during gentrification but the way in which Columbia wishes to insulate itself from those rising prices through it proposed use of the tool of condemnation. Without condemnation, Columbia’s acquisition and growth into the neighborhood would create a rising tide of real estate values in which many in the neighborhood could participate. Conversely, the tools of condemnation and the threat of it serve to suppress and keep neighborhood prices low. Columbia ultimately acquires at a lower price at the expense of community residents. So the real story is a question whether there should be the gentrification endorsed by the community or gentrification the benefits of which the community is excluded from.
The issue of gentrification is more pronounced in the case of the Manhattanville area than in the case of the Atlantic Yards area because the Manhattanville area is economically run down whereas the Atlantic Yards area is in good economic shape and already gentrifying notwithstanding the erroneous finding of blight offered by ESDC. (New co-operatives, renovation and investment have been going on at a rapid pace in the Atlantic Yards area.) In actuality, one could argue convincingly that Atlantic Yards will have its own blighting effect on its environment strong enough to completely counter the gentrification that has been underway in this area.
7. Proper Use of Eminent Domain. Many of those who oppose Columbia’s plans do so partly demanding a “stop to eminent domain abuse.” The same is the case with those opposing the Atlantic Yards megadevelopment. The question is what exactly constitutes “eminent domain abuse.” One Commissioner (Cantor) astutely zeroed in on the fact that when eminent domain is used as a tool, the threat of eminent domain is also available and almost inevitably used. Making a distinction between the two it was pointed out that the latter is accompanied by the deleterious effect of what is called “planner’s blight.” “Planner’s blight” is a reduction of targeted real estate’s value and usability over an extended period of time prior to actual condemnation. Commissioner Cantor asked whether, if permitted, any eminent domain actions by Columbia would be done, as he expressed hope would be the case, all at one time at the beginning of the project. In other words, would the University proceed in a fashion that would avoid planner’s blight. The Columbia representative answered that the University was going to proceed in the contrary fashion. He said that the University would proceed with condemnation piecemeal over time and would ask ESDC to proceed with individual condemnations over time as and when it determined it would serve the University’s purposes. (Implicitly, one must infer that the University would benefit economically at the expense fo the community, in part through lower prices.) The idea that community interest should lie fallow and serve as handmaidens to the interests (and convenience) of megadevelopment languor is suspect. Atlantic Yards is proceeding in a way where the developer’s imprecise schedule has been set up for its own flexible convenience at the expense of the community. Although the Atlantic Yards condemnations are perhaps expected to proceed contemporaneously with each other, the megadevelopment area is currently suffering from some “planner’s blight” prior to the condemnations. Demolition of key buildings that could be supporting the community is planned to occur decades ahead of necessity, entailing the creation of inevitable blight. The megdevelopment languor of Atlantic Yards is contributed to in that, through ineptitude, the inadequate amount of time spent carefully planning the project initially has led to a protracted saga wherein excessive time is being spent defending indefensibly poor design.
While the threat of condemnation creates blight, the community also offered testimony that the threat of condemnation makes Columbia’s negotiations to buy property less than fair or arm’s length. Testimony from the community also asserted that ESDC, the proposed condemnor of properties to which Columbia wants title, is cooperating with a City housing agency to accept transfer of a lease for one of the affordable housing projects in the area. If that is true, then evidence of ESDC’s coordinating efforts would tend to amplify the threat of condemnation.
8. Eminent Domain and Public Purpose. Other aspects of “eminent domain abuse” involve whether property ought to be condemned at all and whether, once condemned, it is for a sufficiently and properly identified public purpose.
a. As has been very much an issue with Atlantic Yards, the public suggested at the hearing that condemnation is threatened or proposed, not for a plan of public purpose generated by public officials, but for a plan developed by the megadeveloper who is to benefit from that plan. To state a principle which should be tautologically obvious: Public purpose must be defined by the public. Perhaps it is less obvious given how often practice may have diverged from principle.
b. At the hearing, members of the community asserted that there was a question as to what extent Columbia was seeking to expand so as to support expanded operations. It was pointed out that Columbia owns (and can own) property built for university purposes which it sublets to others who do not use it for university purposes. When it does so it makes a real estate based profit not related to its operations as a university. Appropriately, when for instance, NYU owns Stella Doro bakery as a for-profit investment, real estate tax exemptions available to NYU for its university property do not apply. By the same token, property which Columbia wishes to acquire for real estate investment purposes should not be made available to it through condemnation or the threat thereof. Not only can Columbia invest in real estate directly, it can conceivably endeavor to achieve essentially the same result by acquiring new property for university purposes through condemnation and then subleasing other existing property for real estate purposes which it is then able to vacate. Given that there would be a certain temptation in this regard, I think the community was suggesting that the question should bear scrutiny. Similar questions about appropriate public purpose are present in the case of Atlantic Yards in that sound privately own housing and buildings are being condemned for housing the megadeveloer proposes to own, making what has been accomplished other than a change of ownership questionable.
c. Is the property being condemned too valuable to be appropriate to condemn? We may sometimes be too quick to value the megadeveloper’s proposed project and not assiduous enough when it comes to recognizing the value of the condemned property it proposes to replace. For the condemnation public purpose equation to make sense, the replacement property should have greater public purpose value than that property which is proposed to be replaced. Whether or not Jane Jacobs was right about everything may be questioned, but she thought long and hard enough about some things so that her views should be considered, among them the value of universities in a city’s fabric. About universities she says they are not to be disdained or their value minimized, “Rather, the point is to recognize that they are mixed blessings. If we can counter their destructive effects, these facilities will themselves be better served.” She goes on to say:
“Big universities in cities, so far as I can see, have given no thought or imagination to the unique establishments they are. Typically they either pretend to be cloistered or countrified places, nostalgically denying their transplantation, or else they pretend to be office buildings. (Of course they are neither.)”
Conversely, many of the properties that Columbia is seeking to oust may have better value if they remain and may enliven the shared neighborhood as a result. If there is any question how easily existing properties can be undervalued in a process like this, we need only look to the way existing properties in the Atlantic Yards footprint have been falsely characterized as “blighted.”
9. Preservation of Buildings in the Community. Columbia is proposing to preserve only three buildings in the entire area. Only one of them, the Studebaker building is a significantly sized building. At the hearing the Society for the Architecture of the City referred to the University’s approach as “slash and burn.” Having visited the site to explore its streets and buildings after the hearing, there are clearly many buildings which normally would be preserved. There are others, many “taxpayers” for example, of little apparent value. One has to ask whether all it would take to save more of the buildings constituting the historic fabric of the 200-year-old neighborhood would be a more vigorous exercise of imagination and a redoubled application of design skills. Preserving the landmark Sheffield Stable building would require just a notch out of the bathtub. Old buildings can be preserved but then the bath tub can’t be built under them. There was a fourth building that was going to be preserved, but the Borough President asked for the removal of the Cotton Club in order to create a wedge of public park down the hill from the adjoining large existing park. One Planning Commissioner (Karen Phillips) asked specifically about possibly making an effort to preserve the Cotton Club. Colombia had testified that it had gone to lengths to successfully accommodate preservation of the popular Dinosaur Barbeque restaurant. Even if the Cotton Club building is not preserved, preservation of a use such as that of the Cotton Club could well be worthwhile. (The value of putting a green wedge there hinges upon whether suggestions such as those made by Municipal Art Society are entertained.)
Atlantic Yards is a prime example where bad decisions, particularly exemplified by inaction with respect to preservation of the white terra cotta Ward Bakery building, have been promoted by the megadeveloper. These proposals should be countered by appropriate action from public officials.
10. Eminent Domain: Proper Process and Responsible Government Entities. Another question has been asked about condemnation: whether it is appropriate, just as in the case of Atlantic Yards, to side-step the City’s condemnation process by using ESDC to effect the condemnation. This a question about whether the City, which is more integrated with the large scale planning process underway is the appropriate entity for this responsibility. (ESDC has, of late, been criticized from a number of directions for lack of transparency.) More so, it is a question of appropriate process because use of the City’s condemnation process will invoke the more careful and public consideration prescribed under the City ULURP process. Condemnation by ESDC sidesteps ULURP. If ULURP is inappropriately side-stepped with exceeding large megaprojects like Atlantic Yards, the exceedingly poor results and negative impact to the City is likely to create an eventual public backlash where ESDC would be stripped of its condemnation powers, a possibility that has always been in the minds of public officials. - If involved, ESDC can also simply override any of the city’s zoning as well.
11. Shaping of the Neighborhood and Boundaries. Another issue is boundaries and neighborhood shape. Jane Jacobs put forth a number of predictive principles about boundaries according to which the Manhattanville neighborhood would be expected to manifest itself exactly as it has, a challenged area of lower than average economic vitality because it struggles with the vacuum created by so many surrounding boundaries. It deals with what Jacobs describes as “The curse of border vacuums.” The area sits inside a basket weave of the following surrounding boundaries described by Jacobs: The steep hill of a little-used park, superblock tower-in-the-park housing projects (and one astoundingly massive tower-around-a-park housing project), a waterfront, a major expressway, the elevated train tracks of the subway under which there are large parking areas. It is almost as if someone sought to create a text book illustration of everything Jacobs was talking about. There is even the presence of the University which Jacobs also talked about in her chapter on the subject. The University design seemingly embraces and reiterates these boundaries for cloistering effect. In addition to offering principles predictive of the inevitable continuing curse of such boundaries, Jacobs offers prescriptive principles for how to counter such effects. She calls for a high population and for diverse uses in the areas. She calls for streets in the area to be especially short. Potential street uses should be “extremely fluid, and that mixture of primary uses should be abundant; so should mixtures in age of buildings.” The proposed upzoning of the area is supported by these suggestions as is Colombia’s proposed creation of the new (pedestrian restricted) cross street. There is also some call for mixed use. The Columbia proposal which proposes fluidity of street use is not proposing a very good mixture in the age of the buildings. The Municipal Art Society’s suggestion to relocate to the west the quad/park from the center of Columbia’s cloistered design would deal more effectively with the boundaries and should work to accomplish what Jacobs describes as the conversion of a “border boundary” to a “seam” where uses come together. The waterfront and its park area is being transformed from a dead-end location to a pumping artery of recreational use particularly due to the bike path. This borders the area and “public room” adjacent to which MAS has suggested the interior park be relocated. The huge arched public room under the highway is also where upscale restaurants have spontaneously begun to locate themselves. There is an opportunity for street-quieting measures in this area which would add to the pedestrian space. How this is handled is likely to impact on the best way to handle what is currently the Cotton Club’s property. The park that takes off from the southern end of the public room is also likely to be better appreciated and less of a boundary with such rearrangements.
Atlantic Yards is a situation where the rail yards in the neighborhood that have been a boundary will be replaced but in a way that the boundary effect will continue. Healthy adjoining neighborhood fabric adjacent to the boundary will be cut away through condemnation in a way that will add to the destructive boundary effect.
12. Assessment of Openness to the Public. The community has raised questions about the openness of streets and open space in the Columbia sponsored plan. Streets would be open, but would they feel open? This is one reason that the Municipal Art Society suggestion on relocating the interior park is valuable. I believe that Columbia is asking that the streets be deeded over to the University. Does this mean the City’s Department of Transportation would be constrained in routing bike paths? Atlantic Yards has a similar problem where “green” “tower-in-a-park” space would be created that would not feel public. The model it uses is very much that of Stuyvesant Town/Peter Copper Village where the equivalent space is not actually public and does not engender a public feel.
13. Monoculture and Monopolistic Ownership. One Commissioner (Angela R. Cavaluzzi) expressed concern and skepticism about the use of a single architect (Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill) for the Columbia project. For Columbia and for Atlantic Yards, this is a significant issue to be weighed. What might arguably be in the short term interest of Columbia, at least from its own vantage, may not be in the interest of the overall city in terms of preserving a balance in societal capital assets. A huge group of buildings all built (and decaying) at the same time with monopolistic ownership and monotonous design and a monoculture of purpose does suspect service to the overall City*. Among other things, it forecloses opportunities for ongoing renewal before too much time has passed. The parallels to Atlantic Yards’ problems where the megadeveloper will monopolistically own 22+(about 8+) acres are obvious. (*The proposed Columbia bathtub is reminiscent of the bathtub in the World Trade Center. I am reminded that in the Trade Center monoculture dictated that all the restaurants, Windows on the World and every fast food restaurant, in that complex were required to share in the delivery of the same chicken, same lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, etc.- A technical feat at once awe inspiring and somehow shudder inducing.)
14. Master-planned Megadevelopments Vs. Planned Organic Growth. Assessing the worth of a master-planned megadevelopment as opposed to planned organic growth requires a certain conscientious discipline that can be difficult to summon up and psychologically elusive. In another field of economics there has been increasing acceptance of the conventional wisdom that international free trade is good and that job losses in a nation are more than made up for by the benefits of lower overall prices, greater efficiencies and the small new industries that spring up in the process. But those who support free trade and initiatives like NAFTA point to the problems of promoting them because the companies that go out of business are discrete known and concentrated entities hiring many people in the same place who can express themselves through existing organized structures like unions. Conversely, the benefits on the other side of the equation are diffuse. Assessing the worth of a master-planned megadevelopment as opposed to planned organic growth involves in a somewhat inverse way much the same kind of a perceptual challenge. As a youngster I loved spending summers building out of my imagination tracks of imaginary towns in the mud. That part of me finds the Columbia plans with the painted-in green parks and added streets exciting. But I know that there is a very real and much harder to appreciate strength that comes with organic economic growth. It comes without the pretty pictures and fascinating miniature models. It also comes without the organized hired phalanxes of architects, lawyers and institutional representatives to speak for it. But I respect the power of naturally flowing unhindered economics and I am not quick to conclude that the forces that built up, SoHo, Greenwich Village and DUMBO are not better forces to endorse. Apply this offered wisdom as you will to Manhattanville and/or to the Atlantic Yards/Vanderbilt Yards area.
15. Community Benefit Agreements. Like Atlantic Yards, Columbia’s proposed expansion for itself presents the issue of “community benefit agreements” which the megadeveloper seeks to structure in order to reduce community objection to its proposed megadevelopment. Like Atlantic Yards there is the question of the enforceability and interpretation of such agreement as well as the question of who actually represents the community. There was public testimony that Columbia has not lived up to other past community benefit agreements (referring to the Audubon). (Forest City Ratner has not lived up to past promises.)
16. Job Creation. Columbia is selling the plan that it is sponsoring, just as Atlantic Yards is being hyped, with the idea jobs will be created: construction jobs and permanent jobs working for the University. Columbia’s estimation of job creation is more honest than what has been promoted in the case of Atlantic Yards and there will likely be more permanent as opposed to construction jobs. But would just as many and perhaps more jobs be created if the community’s plan for Columbia’s expansion were adopted? And wouldn’t all the jobs created be distributed throughout the community in a broader base way that would be beneficial? In the case of Atlantic Yards there should be little question that benefits would be broader based in a good way if the project were being done by multiple developers doing multiple parcels as should be the case and as Battery Park City was done.
17. “Zoning-for-sale” equations. There has been a suggestion that, with the right concessions on the part of Columbia University, such as the $20 million dollars they have offered to give to someone, perhaps a government entity, for housing, the scales might be tipped in favor of approving their plan. Notwithstanding that this sum is not necessarily relatively large, this analysis that there is a dollar scale available to be tipped does promote what someone at the hearing cautioned would be a perception of “zoning for sale.” Notwithstanding the thought that the New York Times may or may not have given to this, there are some profound negatives that may be associated with going down such a path. Among other things, by removing people from the responsibility of dealing directly with the situation at hand, it can lead to short-term thinking, rationalized compromises and inappropriate export of challenges and populations to offsite areas. Though not really the same, Atlantic Yards is very much an example of how muddy thinking can become when trade-off games are played.
18. Ends vs. Means. Inevitably when huge power like eminent domain is wielded there will be those who ask the question of whether the end justifies the means. This is in part because massive projects which are sometimes good are virtually impossible to accomplish without breaking eggs. But people will not forget that Columbia is a huge university that does good and makes contributions to the City. The question will be asked whether anything that in the end strengthens Columbia (or any school or university in the city?) is not good. Perhaps. And perhaps not. No matter the answer, it is important to be quite conscious of the balance of harm and foul in the equation- In the case of Atlantic Yards the abandonment of proper process is leading to a high quotient of harm and foul.
19. Balancing and Scale of Respective Interests Involved. Obviously the Planning Commission is faced with a question of balancing the interests of a huge and influential institution against a community of people with relatively less power. Even if the community plan for Columbia’s expansion is adopted, Columbia has on its side economic tools in competing for property and in the real estate development race, such as real property and sales tax exemptions that are not available to the rest of those in the community.
Like Atlantic Yards, this is a situation where there is a subsidized megadeveloper- (the tax breaks for Columbia and 50% aggregate public subsidy for the Atlantic Yards megadeveloper). Whatever the megadeveloper is doing, neither could do what they are doing nor could they be doing it to the extent they are if they were playing by the rules on a level economic playing field. Each requires public subsidy which needs to be assessed and of which we should remain conscious. In each case negotiation of these subsidies may have given the megadevelopers a head start in their relationships with important government entities. People talk about how the Ratner Atlantic Yards plans took them by surprise being announced as a seeming fait accomplit before the public was let in on the process and people also talk about how Columbia was underway buying property before its plans were known though that is less ominous since it would support either plan.
20. Race and Class. The questions of race and class have been raised with respect to the Columbia expansion and they cannot go unobserved. Similarly there are very much present in the Atlantic Yards situation where the megadeveloper has treated minorities and lower-income populations with cynicism, disrespect and lack of charity in riding roughshod over their interests.
21. Comportment of Megadeveloper. One of the Commissioners inquired about how well Columbia had been doing in reaching out to work well to take into account and deal with others in the Manhattanville community. When an entity is powerful there is perhaps something equivalent to a noblesse oblige responsibility. The Commissioner displayed some skepticism that Columbia had not engaged in stonewalling and other tactics that disregard the interests of those with less power.
22. Environmental Issues and SEQRA. As with Atlantic Yards, the community has made allegations that the SEQRA (in the case of both projects largely done by the firm of AKRF) is sloppy and self-serving. Environmental questions have been raised about Columbia’s planned expansion. The community noted that the project is on a local earthquake fault line and is also in a flood plain and hurricane storm surge area notwithstanding that the bathtub will involve construction of up to seven underground stories. The City’s emergency plans call for evacuation of the area in the event of a hurricane. The community put much stress on the fact that Columbia is proposing to build a Level III bio-hazard facility in the area and has been cited for violations in the administration fo these kinds of facilities in the past. The questions of biohazard facility safety are perhaps more removed from the central debate and perhaps more a question of overall city policy. This is all also a question as to whether safety issues can be sufficiently addressed by brute force engineering and technology. Likewise Atlantic Yards has environmental questions, some of which may eventually be addressed by the brute force of expensive engineering and technology. Whatever is built on Vanderbilt Yards will have to deal with the fact that it is a low land area and sewage needs to be pumped out of the area in a way defensible from a sustainable engineering standpoint. No matter what, technology will not do much to address the Atlantic Yards impact on traffic and mass transit or its shadow. People also raise questions about terrorist attacks.
23. Potential Litigation. One Commissioner asked about whether, if the plan that Columbia was asking for was approved, there was the threat of possible litigation that might (as with Atlantic Yards) lead to extensive delays in the implementation of the plan. The answer was that the threat of such litigation is present. If the reasons for public decisions are unconvincing, as with Atlantic Yards, that threat is much more pronounced. When significant tools like eminent domain are used it is good that checks and balances exist, though paying this price seems like a nuisance when the right decisions have been made. Unless the decisions that were made were right in the first place, fighting and winning the litigation does not constitute a win for the public. A win in the courts does not necessarily mean that public officials made the right decision, only that the decision was not so bad that the courts won’t pay deference to it. If defense of a bad decision is won, it is a loss for the public.
24. Entities Involved in Defining the Debate. It is interesting to note that many of the same people and entities appear in the cast of characters associated both with Columbia’s proposed expansion and with respect to the potential development of the Atlantic Yards/Vanderbilt Yards area:
a. ESDC appears in both situations on the condemnation side as the proposed condemning entity.
b. In each case AKRF did the environmental assessment
c. In each case the Pratt Center for Community Development has provided the community with representation and help in presenting a community-generated competing plan for development.
d. In each case housing subsidy agencies may be in the wings and may ultimately be cooperating with the megadevelopers to effect plans
e. Oddly enough, in each case the New York Times is dealing with one of the significant building industry entities in the process of building its new New York Times building. In the case of the Columbia expansion it is the proposed architect. In the case of Atlantic Yards it is the actual developer.
As noted very early on in this comment, a decision to adopt the University’s proposal rather than asking the University to comply with the community standards of the community-generated plan would almost certainly need to hinge upon thinking that the benefits of the University’s bathtub and 25,000 square foot floor templates configurations are of the utmost importance and unachievable any other way. I wish I had all the information and expertise to deliver a definitive verdict on this point but I do not. Columbia sees its proposal as more beneficial to itself. It may or may not be right. Large-scale planning projects have encompassed some colossal errors of judgement in the past. The Columbia-sponsored plan involves condemnation, and partly because of this it is of critical importance to scrutinize the verity of the need asserted. Furthermore, if Columbia is allowed to access the benefits it proposes and gets more than a fair real estate advantage out of not proceeding with what has been referred to as the NYU development approach, then we have this to think about: The city is filled with universities and other institutions all of which compete to succeed. Any approach that confers too much of an advantage upon one institution must be sought after by all. Replicated elsewhere, is this a healthy way for our city to develop?
Finally there is this point: Having experienced the City's handling of Atlantic Yards, I and many others are naturally going to be immensely more skeptical in reviewing the Columbia plan and much more sensitive to what opponents of it might be asserting, particularly when the issues are parallel. These megadevelopements are by definition big projects and any mistakes made with respect to them are thereby greatly amplified. We need to remind ourselves of the huge amount of political capital it takes to push forward a bad project like Atlantic Yards: Because it is so big and because it is so extraordinarily bad. The loss of political capital undermines the ability of projects like the Columbia project, which may be much more laudable, to get traction. When mistakes are made, 1200-pound gorillas are not wall flowers. These are huge physical things occupying public space and they do not recede into the past.
Michael D. D. White
LIST OF ILL-FOUNDED REASONS FOR
MEGADEVELOPER’S PLAN TO ELIMINATE
STREETS, AVENUES AND SIDEWALKS
IN PROPOSED ATLANTIC YARDS DESIGN
(Even though more streets and sidewalks are desirable)
It’s worth asking why the Ratner Atlantic Yards project is proposing closing down streets, avenues and sidewalks to create superblocks when this is such palpably bad design. (It is also very un-Jane-Jacobsian and does not accord with the ideas of her colleague, William H. Whyte, Jr. about having developments connect with streets to ensure vitality.) By contrast, Rockefeller Center is an exemplar of how adding rather than subtracting streets can be a much better design.
The following answers present themselves:
1. Subterfuge to disguise project density. By taking the streets that would normally be owned by the city and the public and creating superblocks where that area will instead be part of the land to which the developer “holds title,” the developer creates the basis for an argument, deceptively subtle, that the project is not actually as dense as it is. If the streets are not transferred to the developer and deleted from the publicly-owned grid, the project would be at an FAR (floor to area ratio) so dense that it would be clearly illegal or not permitted under the city’s zoning code. By deleting the streets the project owner can better venture an argument that the project might theoretically comply with the maximum permitted FAR which is perhaps possible under the city zoning code in certain other limited instances. I am not sure that the argument could be successfully and honestly made, but the point is that taking the streets from the public subtly allows advancing a technical argument that the project should be viewed as less dense and as potentially theoretically compliant.
2. To inflate perception that the project provides more than very minimal “green space.” The streets, avenues and sidewalks owned by the public provide: light, sunshine, air, pedestrian ways, tree-growing space, public areas to socialize and the freedom to circulate. In short, streets and sidewalks fulfill many purposes in common with “green space”and park land. One of the rationales that has been offered for the project’s creation is the idea that “green space” will be created. This is probably offered also as an attempt to distract from the project’s oppressive density. Actually, the amount of true green space being created is rather infinitesimal except that developer wants to take credit for donating back to public the very same street, avenue and sidewalk space the developer is first going to wrest from public ownership. In other words, a shell-game. There is a good Marx Brothers routine running along similar lines. Not only is the net amount of true green space being newly created for the public negligible, but the quality of the green space being offered is exceeding poor. The space will be scrunched into the continual shadow of excessively tall buildings and will be crisscrossed by the vehicular and sidewalk access pathways that will still be functionally needed, notwithstanding that public roads and sidewalks have technically been eliminated.
3. Disguise for the lack of basis to condemn the block with the Ward Bakery building. One entire large block of the Atlantic Yards project is being condemned with virtually no plausible basis. This block of existing viable buildings, including the historic Wards Bakery building, that should be preserved. This Ward Bakery block is not needed to construct the proposed arena. The block is not blighted. The real reason the block is being condemned is to create an unjustifiable windfall to subsidize the developer. This will be done by involving the State ESDC to exercise a zoning override. The block is currently zoned mostly M1-1 and partly R7A. In condemning the land the developer will have to pay only a very low price reflecting this current relatively low density of development for which the block is now zoned. While not having to pay any more for the block than this (not even the site’s potential value at the higher density for which it might otherwise soon be rezoned if that is deemed desirable), the developer will get to develop the site at a density that is so extremely high it exceeds what would ever normally be permitted under the zoning code for the block. The tactical elimination of the city’s Pacific Street which would separate the block from the rest of the project in this area serves to make this overreaching far less obvious.
4. Obfuscation that the Project is a natural candidate for multiple developers. Were the existing streets and avenues maintained, the project would exist as a greater number of discrete blocks. Were additional streets put in, as well they should, as was done with Rockefeller Center (and would opportunely serve to extend existing street patterns in this case) there would be an even greater number of discrete blocks. A project of this size is an obvious candidate for development by multiple developers; compare, for instance, Battery Park City. The multiplicity of blocks would highlight this as the most appropriate way to proceed. It would emphasis in an embarrassing way that award of this project without a proper bid process has all along been the wrong way to proceed. It would also call attention to the fact that, for the public’s benefit, at any time later phases of this project can and should be readily transferable to other more accountable developers.
5. Subterfuge to better hide the fact that it is not planned consistently with what has been planned around it. It is interesting to look at the level of care and comprehensiveness the City and State have exercised planning for density in the immediate area of which Atlantic Yards is a part. In this regard, the anomalies are most informing.
Atlantic Yards has neighbors, neighbors in the form of immediately adjacent blocks and neighborhood. That it has neighbors is actually part of the reasons expressed for its being undertaken. In theory, it is part of a comprehensive plan to benefit its neighbors in the ways that it is planned to integrate with them.
It is therefore odd and informative that the plans for Atlantic Yards do not mesh with the plans for the neighboring property. Nothing can ameliorate the patent inconsistencies.
Let’s look at the contrasting plans for the parcels in this area, Atlantic Yards and all its immediate adjacent neighbors:
a. Atlantic Yards: Incomparably dense with respect to every square inch of property that Ratner will own.- Not taking into account the arena (and the oppressive effect it will have on circulation and traffic), the density is somewhere in excess of a 12 FAR.
b. Atlantic Commons: Across the street from Atlantic Yards. On average it is the same distance from the transit hub. It was built with government aid and supervision (both from the City and State) only a dozen years ago. (For those too young or naive to see a dozen years as recent in real estate terms, it should be borne in mind that this is likely less time than it will take to build Atlantic Yards.) This project is not built as large as would be permitted under the R7-2 district zoning where it is located. The proposed R7-2 district, a medium-density general residential district, has a commercial FAR of 3.4, (or going up to 6.5 with community facilities). Though the original street network has proportionally more streets in this area, I believe a street was added, rather than subtracted, when this project was built and it helps create a park which is properly designed so as to feel shared by all the public and surrounding community. The project is all residential and all affordable.
c. Atlantic Terrace: Across the street from Atlantic Yards. On average it is closer to the transit hub. Being built with government aid and supervision within approximately the same time frame as Atlantic Yards but will be completed much sooner. It is also being built on a site the reclamation of which is being promoted by government- a brown field. Many key coordinating officials are credited in common with Atlantic Yards. It is not being built as large as would be permitted under the C6-2 district zoning where it is located. The proposed C6-2 district, a medium-density general commercial and residential district, has a commercial FAR of 6.0 and a residential FAR of 6.02 (R8 equivalent). 63 of the project’s 80 residential units (78.8%) will be affordable units with at least 50% of the project’s units being affordable to families with incomes at or below 80% AMI. The project will have commercial space at ground level. Atlantic Yards is so much taller than this 10-story project that its shadow will prevent Atlantic Terrace from using solar panels as originally planned. The almost unavoidable conclusion is that if the Atlantic Yards project density is desirable, then the government-sponsored planning for this more laudable non-Ratner project now being built right across the street should also have involved much greater density.
d. Rezoning of Fort Greene-Clinton Hill: One of the most recent planning steps taken in this immediate area is the down-zoning achieved for the immediately neighboring Fort Greene-Clinton Hill. The City Council acted on July 25, 2007, to achieve the Fort Greene-Clinton Hill rezoning protections. The planning process involved reviews by, and reflects the work of, City Planning. The protected area includes 99 blocks of Fort Greene-Clinton Hill and part of the Wallabout neighborhoods, covering a wide expanse stretching from Atlantic Avenue to Park Avenue, and from Ashland Place to Classon Avenue. The change in zoning was effected through Jane-Jacobsian planning from the ground up effort initiated in 2002, driven by the Fort Greene Association, the Society for Clinton Hill, the Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project, the Pratt Area Community Council, Councilperson Letitia James, as well as numerous other civic and local organizations. Prior to the rezoning, most of the area was zoned R6- still much lower density than Atlantic Yards. After the approval of this major rezoning, the majority of the area now has what is called R6B zoning, which restricts building heights to only what is there at present, meaning mostly 3-to-5 story structures with a maximum height of 50 feet.
e. Zoning for the Ward Bakery Building block (part of the land being condemned for the AY project): The block is zoned almost entirely M1-1 with an edge zoned R7A. This zoning, with its far lower density, represents the plan that the City developed for this block and which presently applies for this block absent the Ratner high density sudden replacement of this plan. M1-1 is an FAR of 1.0 (or up to 2.4 with a community facility), and R7A is an FAR of 4.0. This is also consistent with and representative of the City’s still-persisting zoning plans for the blocks in the area just south of this block.
f. Zoning for the Arena Block where cooperative apartment buildings were recently created and are now being condemned (part of the property being condemned for the AY project): This block is one of those closest to the transit hub. It is zoned C4-4A, R6B and R7A C4-4A is an FAR of 4.0, R6B is an FAR of 2.0 and R7A is an FAR of 4.0. This is also consistent with and representative of the City’s still-persisting zoning plans for the blocks in the area just south of this block.
g. Landmarks: Landmarks is part of the overall planning process for the fabric of the city and if there is comprehensive planning it should be applied in a consistent manner across the city. The question is “When is a landmark not a landmark?” The Ward Bakery Building which Bruce Ratner is eager to destroy (extremely over-eager) is a real asset to the area with extraordinary potential for contribution to the city fabric. Under normal circumstances one would expect the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission to be evaluating it for protection. But it is not. On November 26, 2006 an op-ed piece by Tom Wolfe appeared in the New York Times which made the point that the Landmarks Preservation Commission operates with insufficient independence from the Mayor. Whether or not the Wolfe analysis was entirely correct, all 11 Commissioners of the Landmarks Preservation Commission are appointed by the Mayor and the Mayor also appoints the Chair and the Vice Chair, which quite credibly supports the prevalent concern that the main reason Ward Bakery is not on the Commission’s radar screen is because the Mayor does not want it to be. 10 of the Commissioners receive no salary; a substantial salary ensues from appointment as the Commission’s Chair. The Commissioners and Landmark staff work hard and do excellent work. But when the Mayor takes an interest, how sufficient can the checks and balances be? What happens to hopes for consistency when the Mayor’s interest in a particular developer’s project is strong? If the site design called for Pacific Street (which separates the Ward Bakery Building block) to remain open, it would make such planning inconsistencies more obvious.
Noted above, the almost unavoidable conclusion is that IF the Atlantic Yards project density is actually desirable, then present planning (probably better) for neighboring non-Ratner property development logically ought to similarly involve much greater density. Assuming a careful and comprehensive design for the area, the only way to avoid this conclusion would be to suppose that the planning intentionally plans for very low density right next to the very high density Ratner-owned property as a mechanism to ameliorate the negatives of the extreme density at which Ratner is to build. Such a conclusion, if reached, would, in essence, require concluding that, in addition to the properties being condemned directly so that Ratner may take actual ownership of them, there is also proposed a subtle inverse condemnation of the ability and right of the neighboring parcel owners to, at an appropriate juncture, seek zoning changes to permit greater density on their property with the resulting increase in property value.
6. General obliviousness to good design- Metrotech. The most innocuous explanation for the elimination of streets, sidewalks and avenues and the creation of superblocks using the discredited “tower in the `park’” approach is that the developer is simply oblivious to the tenets of good design. The best support for this argument is the developer’s design for Metrotech. That endeavor likewise created superblocks and reflects peculiar decisions about street demappings. The Metrotech project created an area that suffers from lack of an active street life and is deadened by an uninspired repetitive sameness of design effect. Metrotech has also seriously confused the area’s street grid options, making south-to-north transit an almost insurmountable challenge even for a determined bicyclist.