This is evaluation item #30 (of 47) of the Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card
Avoidance of Cataclysmic Money? NO
Part of Jane Jacobs genius was to point out that money could be destructive when it floods in faster than it can be constructively used. Even if good is “intended” by it, it can be too much of a good thing. She calls this “cataclysmic money” and identifies more than one form of it, but one of its most important forms, especially these days and in the case of Atlantic Yards, is public funding and subsidy. Even though or despite the fact that the Atlantic Yards area was, through natural economic processes, attracting substantial economic capital and creating million dollar co-ops and condos, Atlantic Yards is a supreme example of something with so many bad economic equations it would never happen except for public subsidy. That subsidy is overriding private enterprise in a huge way that ought to be offensive to conservative and liberal thinkers alike.
Since we wrote the original version of this article it has become highly evident that Atlantic Yards, if it proceeds, is likely to take decades to complete, perhaps three or four. If, as likely, it does indeed take decades, then money that goes into it (including subsidy of perhaps $2-3 Billion) will, in real terms, go into the mega-monopoly over decades but that money will still have a cataclysmic effect since the entire megadevelopment is being induced by what is essentially* an up-front promise of all that subsidy. That, in turn, is resulting in the wholesale present day destruction of the neighborhood with many buildings being torn down now and ownership of much of the neighborhood changing hands now to thereafter lie fallow or underutilized in the hands of the developer.
(* Although much of the subsidy, particularly the housing portion, is not yet technically committed and amounts have not been specified or made public, ESDC and the MTA, by giving the developer a monopoly on the development of the land (essentially an option), the public agencies have put themselves in a preposterously poor negotiating position that will enable the developer to blackmail the public for the remainder of the subsidy that the mega-project plan in fact envisions. That blackmail is likely to be for that remainder amount plus more.)
(Below: Rendering by the Municipal Art Society showing the teardown of the neighborhood the Ratner project plan involves. At this point, even some of the replacement buildings shown above next to the arena probably won't come in the near future either. -Original Aerial Photograph by Jonathan Barkey.)
JJ Cites: [Cataclysmic money pours into an area in concentrated form, producing drastic changes. As an obverse of this behavior, cataclysmic money sends relatively few tickles into localities not treated to cataclysm. P. 293 . So cumbersome is this form of city investment that it serves better, in many instances, to paralyze and penalize the use of money rather then to stimulate and reward it. Ever greater incentives must constantly be contrived to give investment in this type of cataclysm another shot and another shove.. . . “Some cities using federal funds have acquired so much land without rebuilding that the Federal Housing and Home Finance Agency has become the largest grower of ragweed. P. 294, 295 After the drought came fantastic floods. . . . In the case of a mistake like the Edsel, a point is reached when expenditures is reappraised and halted. But in East Harlem, citizens today have to fight off still more money for repetitions of mistakes that go unappraised by those who control the money floodgates. . . Lack of gradual money wastes city districts already inherently fit for city, and therefore with a great potential for rapid improvement. It also means that there is no hope for districts that lack one or more of the conditions for generating diversity, and need help in acquiring these supplements, as well as money for normal changes and for worn-out structures. Where is the money from conventional sources which might be going into gradual change? Where does it go instead? Some of it goes into planned cataclysms of redevelopment and renewal; more of it is going into self-destruction of diversity, to the ruination of outstanding city success. P 307,308 (t)here is apt to be no relationship between city-created and city-needed savings, and city-building investment. P 308.309 Does this mean, however, that our more institutionalized money nowadays can be used only cataclysmically? Are the great bureaucracies of money such big fish that they can operate only in cities of big fish, huge borrowers, immense and abrupt changes? Is a system which is able in one of its manifestations to retail credits, gently. . able in other manifestations only to distribute credit violently in wholesale lots? This city-building money operates as it does not because of its own internal necessities and forces. It operates cataclysmically because we, as a society, have asked for just this. P. 309 Social sponsorship of these cataclysms is taken for granted. This is the public’s contribution to city rebuilding. The public understands less well that sponsoring these cataclysmic uses of private investment in these cities it has also made an enforced choice among various differing forms of private investment. P 311. Project building as a form of city transformation makes no more sense financially than it does socially. P. 313 Public housing money is employed cataclysmically instead of for gradual, steady street and district improvement, because we thought cataclysms would be good for slum dwellers- - and a demonstration to the rest of us of the good life. P. 314 The decay of our cities goes deeper and more complicated. It goes right down to what we think we want, and to our ignorance about how cities work. The forms in which money is used for city building- - or withheld from use - - are powerful instruments of city decline today. P. 317.]