Sunday, November 30, 2008

Landmarks Preservation Commission: Will Times Special Series Have it All Covered?

The New York Times is running a series of articles that will bring some welcome attention to shortcomings of the city landmarks preservation process. The two articles that have run so far after a “six-month examination of the commission’s operations” contain some very good reporting but notable omissions in the story being told force us to wonder: Are they saving some major criticism for a future article in the series?

The Two Times Articles in the Series

The two articles that have run so far are: Preserving the City: An Opaque and Lengthy Road to Landmark Status, By Robin Pogrebin, November 25, 2008and Preserving the City: Preservationists See Bulldozers Charging Through a Loophole, By Robin Pogrebin, November 28, 2008.

Each is about the lack of protection the landmarks law affords to proposed landmarks which have not yet been so designated. The first focuses on how the Landmarks Preservation Commission can sometimes move inordinately slowly toward landmarking buildings and neighborhoods. There is a lack of transparency in providing reasons for why progress is slow when it is. The city agency is underfunded but that does not address questions about selectivity in the priorities being pursued. The second article is about the way that developers race against preservationists to destroy buildings and the loose, loopholed structure that often lets developers win.

Unmentioned Mayoral Influence, but Mentioned in Earlier Editorial

Remarkably, neither article mentions the influence of the city office of the mayor in relation to the Landmarks Preservation Commission and neither article mentions the particular influence of the current mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg.

We previously wrote about a New York Times October editorial, The Missing Landmarks Commission, (published October 17, 2008) which excoriated the LPC for lack of effective action to prevent the Commission’s being “routinely outflanked by developers.” (See: Sunday, October 19, 2008, Building the Right Landmarks Case; Wrong Building.) That editorial at least acknowledged the mayor is a significant participant in what needs to be fixed about the process. It is the mayor “who appoints the commissioners” noted the editorial and it called for the commission to develop the “the political will” needed to do its job by getting the “full backing” from the mayor to that end.

Times Needs to Catch Up with Bad Bloomberg Behavior

That was the Times editorial page, not a news analysis story such as the series now being run. In a follow-up post we noted that the Times editorial page, in this case and in others, has been in the position of having to play a lot of catch-up in trying to rein in Bloomberg’s bad mayoral behavior, an entirely unfortunate state of affairs since two Times editorials have pushed Bloomberg much closer to his coveted third term by endorsing term limits changes. (See: Saturday, November 15, 2008, The Mayor, The Times’ Timing, and a Proper Ordering.)

Example (Miner) of Mayor Control over the LPC

The influence of the mayor over the Landmarks Preservation Commission did not begin with Bloomberg. It was written about at length in a now rather famous, (and famously long) op-ed piece alleging LPC process failures by Tom Wolfe lambasting the Commission (See: Op-Ed Contributor, The (Naked) City and the Undead, November 26, 2006.) Wolfe was writing in the time of Bloomberg but he also wrote about earlier mayors. Most recently the subject of mayoral control popped up in the Times obituary for Dorothy Miner, former longtime counsel to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (Dorothy Miner, 72, Legal Innovator, Dies, by David W. Dunlap, October 23, 2008). A lot of people, including ourselves, thought Dorothy was a superb person and respected her terrifically. Dorothy Miner left the LPC when, as one quoted individual states in the obituary, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani “decided he would accede to the real estate industry and press to remove her as counsel.”

Ms. Miner’s obituary tells the story of a public servant who was effective in faithfully helping the LPC to perform its mission. She insisted on “principle and procedure.” She performed an important role in winning the court case that preserved Grand Central Station and defended the historic designation of St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue. She:

helped devise the legal framework under which it designated the 17th-century street plan of Lower Manhattan as a landmark in 1983. That stopped developers from further eradicating the neighborhood’s characteristically irregular blocks.
Judicial Direction to LPC: Don’t Let Applications Languish

As the first article in the Times series notes at the outset, as the result of a lawsuit the commission has been ordered to now “start making timely decisions on every designation request.” The lawsuit was brought by preservationists after the commission let a year 2000 request to expand the Park Slope Historic District go into perpetual bureaucratic limbo. Wrote the ruling judge,
Marilyn Shafer, to allow such proposals “to languish is to defeat the very purpose of the L.P.C. and invite the loss of irreplaceable landmarks.” According to the Times, “In her ruling, Justice Shafer also ordered that any request for designation be submitted to the commission’s request committee within 120 days of receipt.”

Under Bloomberg a Less Transparent, More Autocratic, LPC Process

As important, or more important than how fast submitted landmark requests get acted upon, is what gets selected to be considered by all the commissioners and how that selection is made. The Times reports that under Bloomberg, an insufficiently transparent process to determine this became autocratically controlled and less transparent in 2004. Ironically, the change came in response to a request by the Historic Districts Council to make the process more transparent. To wit:

. . .a designation committee consisting of a group of commissioners once evaluated proposals and recommended which ones should be forwarded to the full commission for consideration at a public hearing. In something of a paradox, the committee was abolished after it was challenged by the Historic Districts Council, which argued that its closed-door meetings violated the Open Meetings Law.
(Since we think that the committee meeting behind closed doors was a violation of the open meetings law, we wonder how things would have been if a stickler like Dorothy Miner had been around to assert herself as counsel.)

The change in process that thereafter came about means that the commission’s paid chairman, Robert B. Tierney “and the staff decide what proposals should be forwarded to the 11 commissioners.” In the lawsuit the plaintiff, Citizens Emergency Committee to Preserve Preservation “assailed what it describes as the chairman’s “absolute power” over the landmark process.” According to a quoted commission researcher in the article “All the final calls are his.”

Chairman Tierney’s Qualifications as a Preservationist

The Times reports criticism of Chairman Tierney’s qualifications as a preservationist:

“He’s a guy who’s had no demonstrable interest in historic preservation, who has the most important preservation job in New York City,” said Anthony C. Wood, author of “Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks” (Routledge, 2008), and a party to the suit.
Problem with Deadlines & Need for Selectivity; (Self-inflicted?) Limitation on LPC Resources

In the lawsuit the commission opposed the setting of deadlines. Part of the problem is that the commission, with what the article describes “one of the smallest budgets of any city agency,” only has manpower enough to proceed selectively. Notwithstanding that the limited resources constrain the commission in pursuit of its mission, Chairman Tierney (who gave reason to defend his action in the Times article):

. . . declined a budget increase of $750,000 approved by the City Council; instead the commission ended up getting an increase of just $50,000 for a total Council allocation of $300,000. (The current budget is $4.7 million.)
A Reason for Selectivity Not Mentioned by the Times

One thing the Times has not mentioned in its writings is that it is not insufficient staff alone that holds the LPC back. The LPC also needs to hold itself back so as not to overplay its hand and provoke a backlash if it goes beyond the level of activism and regulation the public will support. We are not talking about backlash from the real estate community: The real estate community should not have special veto power over commission activity. We are talking about what level of activity the general public will support. When development feels too constrained there can be a backlash from the general public. Right now, that does not seem to be much of a problem because mostly the public is clamoring for more protection.

Real Estate Community Support for LPC

Even if it seems initially counterintuitive, we think the real estate community should support a properly functioning Landmarks Preservation Commission. We note that this is not the case. When LPC was facing a funding cutback this year, the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) did not enter the fray to support full funding for the LPC.

REBNY ought to support full funding because when its members own properties that are or become landmarks it speeds up processing time. In real estate, time is money. More important, landmarking increases and provides stable support for the real estate value of neighborhoods and the city overall. It's obvious the real estate industry does well when real estate values are high.

Harder Job for Tierney

Given that LPC Chairman Tierney has assumed so much responsibility unto himself, he has therefore assumed a role that involves some delicate balancing. We suspect he is aware of this and takes the real responsibility of not provoking backlash seriously because he probably earnestly does not want the LPC to lose support. That means, however, that another essential part of his job is convincing both sides, preservationists and developers, that he is walking the line properly. The need for preservationist credentials aside, it probably makes his need for political skills paramount. It is to his advantage to convince preservationists to be patient because he is working with them while at the same time convincing developers that certain actions are in fact necessary to keep at bay more forceful publicly driven initiatives. That may be well and fine, but while he placates and strikes a balance, how may the biddings of the mayor be factoring in? If one had enough power and influence, would one be speaking to a placating Chairman Tierney or directly to the mayor?

Is Failure Sometimes Just Orchestrated Political Theater?

The Times second article explores an allegation that even when the LPC is progressing toward protection under Tierney, the speed with which it is progressing may not be in earnest. “Pre-emptive demolitions” can make a process that is underway meaningless. Speaking about the Dakota Stables, in exactly such an instance, Kate Wood, the executive director of the preservationist group Landmark West!, said:

“The commission had no intention of designating Dakota Stables,” . . . “They waited until it had been torn down. It was clearly too late for them to do anything meaningful.”

“It was all so carefully orchestrated,” she added. “It was politics. It was all just theater.”
Mayoral Influence May Not Be Awkwardly Apparent in Selectively Process, but . . .

The mayor can exercise influence with a minimal and largely indiscernible effort at these initial stages when the only questions are what gets assigned priority to proceed to evaluation at a commission hearing (and how fast it proceeds there) and where the decision is, as now, solely Chairman Tierney’s. Although the Times has not as yet written about what happens at later stages, the whole commission is involved when you are dealing with buildings and districts that have already been designated as landmark.

Because decisions before the commission should be made consistent with precedent, the surfacing of resulting awkwardness can disclose the likely operation of influence. Such was the case when the LPC squirmed to evade precedent in dealing with the Rudin / St. Vincent’s real estate deal. In that recent case, which will be challenged, part of the Greenwich Village Historic District is essentially being sold off, partly to permit a profitable Rudin Development real estate deal and partly so that funds raised thereby can be used to subsidize St. Vincent’s Hospital. We wonder what would have happened if Dorothy Miner, who insisted on “principle and procedure,” was still around.

Inaction Means the Destruction of Historic Jewel Buildings

Depending on the circumstances of a race with developers, selective inaction by the commission often means the destruction of historic buildings. The Times gives examples of favorite public buildings the commission has not acted upon, including a building at the real estate Tiffany-location of all Tiffany-locations: Tiffany itself. Though the proposed landmarking has not been acted on, Tiffany has not been destroyed. Many of the landmarks of concern mentioned in the article are in Manhattan; mentioned is Edward Durell Stone’s 1964 “lollipop” building at 2 Columbus Circle, which was prominently written about in the Times October editorial (which we commented upon.)

Superlative Example of Selectivity Not Mentioned by the Times: The Ward Bakery Building

Not mentioned was the Ward Bakery Building. The selectivity of its nondesignation and the ensuing destruction that resulted would have been well worth writing about to make a number of points. It is our understanding that landmarking protection was specifically not to be made available for the Ward Building. We can only presume that was a decision for which Mayor Bloomberg was responsible. Yes, sometimes developers race with the LPC to destroy landmarks before they can be designated, but Ward Bakery serves as an excellent example of a situation where one side is not even running.

(Click on picture above to enlarge.)

When the LPD designated all the property around the Ward Bakery Building as a historic district, we testified and wrote an updating piece on how obviously and wrongly the Ward Bakery Building had been carefully excluded from the landmarking. The LPC proceeded right after the demolition of the Ward Bakery Building was already well underway. (See: Wednesday, October 29, 2008, Puzzle Pieces: Proposed Prospect Heights Historic District, LPC Public Hearing)

Buildings in Jeopardy, Including 28 in Downtown Brooklyn

(photo from MAS on-line report)

The Times article is worth reading for the historic landmarks of concern that are mentioned, but its short representative list is far from exhaustive. We should be asking how energetically the race with developers is being run about all of them. For instance, not mentioned amongst the candidates for landmarking that the LPC is very slowly considering are many buildings in Brooklyn’s downtown. There are so many buildings of quality in the area that one could consider designating a whole landmark district, but the effort undertaken has been one of individual designations. Buildings in Downtown Brooklyn stand to be especially vulnerable to destruction because of the “death sentence by density” that is likely to come with the area’s recent significant upzoning. Sixteen buildings were initially nominated in 2004, two soon thereafter designated. (See: Groups Seek Landmarking for `Architecturally Significant Buildings` in Downtown Plan Area, by Linda Collins, 02-07-2004 and BHA gets 2 Downtown buildings landmarked, by Jess Wisloski, The Brooklyn Paper, March 26, 2005) At present the Municipal Art Society says that of 28 buildings identified, only four have now been designated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. A MAS report with photographs of the 28 building is available at their site.

(Iamge taken from MAS on-line report)

Inverse Values: Targeting for Destruction What the Community Values

Precisely because many of the buildings in Downtown Brooklyn are so beautiful and historic they are particularly likely to be targets for cultural vandalism on the part of developer owners. The second Times article makes clear how buildings with enough value to be landmarked are especially likely to be targets for destruction because of the possibility that their value to the community might be recognized.

This peculiar situation is not a neutral race with developers. Developers actually seek to identify what the larger community values and place their priority on destroying it. They do so whether or not they are ready to replace the building. The developers target and seek to erase a building’s historic and “distinctive features,” obtaining “stripping permits” with the purpose of irreparably damaging these features of a building so that the buildings are no longer be landmark-worthy.

Absurdist Example: Progress Toward Protection, a Phone Call from LPC Chairman Can Provoke Destruction of Candidates for Landmarking

Putting a property on the LPC calendar provides it with temporary protection from pre-emptive demolitions. Building owners may not thereafter obtain demolition or alteration permits. Problematically, before hearings are scheduled Chairman Mr. Tierney or commission staff reporting to him contact the owners “to explain the potential benefits of landmark designation.” That advance notification can backfire and cause a pre-emptive demolition.

While the Times offers the characterization that “the number of pre-emptive demolitions across the city may be relatively small,” legislative bills to make the process more rational have been suggested by City Council members Tony Avella and Rosie Mendez. Both bills are in line with a suggestion made by Commissioner Roberta Brandes Gratz that would provide a good foundation for reform:
“When a property owner goes to the buildings department for a permit to strip, it should be a red flag,”

Example of Developer Inverse Values Writ Large: Ward Bakery Building Destruction; Destruction Continues

The inverse value structure of destroying what is valued by a community precisely because the community values it is the situation which was writ large in the case of the Ratner Organization’s destruction of the Ward Bakery Building. The Ratner Organization cynically hoped that by destroying what the community valued, they might make future approvals and extreme subsidies for the Atlantic Yard megadevelopment more likely. In the case of a building like the Dakota Stables, cornices and “round-arched windows and serpentine ornamentation,” were the valued and historic features being erased so that the building would not be saved. The historic and distinctive Ward Bakery Building was to the Prospect Heights neighborhood what a distinctive cornice is to the building. The Ward bakery Building was destroyed by Ratner in hopes that he would tilt the playing field in favor of his destroying a swath of neighborhood with subsequent public subsidy.

Just as there is no legitimate need to destroy cornices, round-arched windows and serpentine ornamentation first, there was no need to destroy the Ward Bakery Building so soon. It will probably be decades hence if it is ever replaced by Ratner at all. Still, this kind of demolition, driven by Ratner’s inverse values, continues today as he targets for demolition first that which has greatest value to the community. The current case in point is the demolition of three attractive town houses on Dean Street. (See: Monday, November 24, 2008, Even as lawsuits delay construction, demolition on Dean Street creates facts on the ground (and blight) and November 29, 2008 Atlantic Yards: What's missing from this picture?)

Legal vs. Illegal Destruction of Cornices

In the case of the Times second article and situations like the removal of the cornice of the Dakota Stables, the Times was writing about destruction which is unfortunately legal. The Ward Bakery Building suffered a sudden, suspicious parapet collapse that effectively removed the building’s cornice. Workmen were in the building. The substantial amount of parapet that collapsed seemed unusual. It also seemed unusual given that one would have expected a building in use only a few years ago to have been sturdy.

The collapse came at a time when politicians might still have mobilized effectively to preserve the building from destruction, either through landmarking or through a political agreement to postpone its demolition until the future and the rationality for its eventual destruction or nondestruction could be better discerned. It might be said that Ratner and his allies in the Bloomberg administration were in no real danger of having destruction of the Ward Bakery Building prevented. But it is also quite possible that they had no desire to expend political capital to secure their ability to demolish. The “collapsing” also gave an appearance of out-of-control deterioration that might seem to have warranted demolition. (See: Friday, April 27, 2007, Details, comments, questions emerge about the falling parapet at the Ward Bakery.)

When Developer Inverse Values Become Reflexive

If it becomes reflexive for developers such as Bruce Ratner to target for destruction the distinctive characteristics of a neighborhood that the public might value and to do so in order to maintain control of public discourse, what does it say of their overall mentality? What does it say about those, including Mayor Bloomberg, who closely associate with them? Let’s see if one of the future Times articles writes about Mayor Bloomberg’s allegiances and actions in this arena.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card #9: Park Design Makes Use of “Enclosure” to Define Park Space? NO

This is evaluation item #9 (of 47) of the Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card

Park Design Makes Use of “Enclosure” to Define Park Space? NO

Jane Jacobs said that parks should be enclosed by buildings so as to be recognizable events. The Atlantic Yards green space is not enclosed as a recognizable event. Nor is Ratner’s Atlantic Avenue Mall space.

JJ Cites: [- - the presence of buildings around a park is important in design. They enclose it. They make a definite shape out of the space, so that it appears as an important event in the city scene, a positive feature, rather than a no-account leftover. Far from being attracted by indefinite leftover of land oozing around buildings, people behave as if repelled by them. P. 106]

(For more on this subject see Noticing New York’s post: Monday, September 22, 2008, Should a Teardrop be Shed- Considering the Burden?)

Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card #8: Parks Are Designed So Sun Shines Within Them? NO

This is evaluation item #8 (of 47) of the Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card

Parks Are Designed So Sun Shines Within Them? NO

Jane Jacobs said that parks should be designed so that sun hits the park. The placement of the green space at Atlantic Yards amongst super-tall buildings does not permit this achievement.

JJ Cites: [Sun is a part of a park’s setting for people, shaded, to be sure, in summer. P. 105 . . . the great building shadow across it from a new apartment house is a great eraser of human beings within its pall. . . .buildings should not cut sun from a park - - - if the object is to encourage full use P.106]

(For more relating to the lack of sun in the park space see Noticing New York’s post: Monday, September 22, 2008, Should a Teardrop be Shed- Considering the Burden?)

Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card #7: Parks Are Designed with Desirable Centers? NO

Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card #7: Parks Are Designed with Desirable Centers? NO

This is evaluation item #7 (of 47) of the Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card

Parks Are Designed with Desirable Centers? NO

Jane Jacobs said that parks should be designed with recognizable interior centers. The Atlantic Yards green space design does not have recognizable centers. Nor do Ratner’s Metrotech or Atlantic Avenue Malls.

JJ Cites: [Probably the most important element in intricacy is centering. Good small parks typically have a place somewhere within them commonly understood to be the center- - - at the very least a main crossroads and pausing point, a climax. P.104 Long strip parks . . dismally unsuccessful. . . Are frequently designed as if they were rolled out of a die stamper. . . What can users make of this? The more they move back and forth, the more they are in the same place. P. 105 (F)or neighborhood parks, the finest centers are stage settings for people. P. 105]

(For more on this subject see Noticing New York’s post: Monday, September 22, 2008, Should a Teardrop be Shed- Considering the Burden?)

Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card #6: Has Intricacy of Park Design? NO

Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card #6: Has Intricacy of Park Design? NO

This is evaluation item #6 (of 47) of the Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card

Has Intricacy of Park Design? NO

Jane Jacobs said that parks should be designed with intricacy. The Atlantic Yards green space design does not appear to respect this. Nor do Ratner’s Metrotech or Atlantic Avenue Malls.

JJ Cites: [Successful parks always look much more intricate in use than when they are empty. P.104]

(For more on this subject see Noticing New York’s post: Monday, September 22, 2008, Should a Teardrop be Shed- Considering the Burden?)

Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card #5: Uses Parks as Focal Points? NO

This is evaluation item #5 (of 47) of the Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card

Uses Parks as Focal Points? NO

Jane Jacobs suggested that parks should be used as nodes and focal points to gain value. Atlantic Yards does the opposite. Parks there are what Jacobs would call project “prairie.” Beyond this, Jane Jacobs suggested that good park design entailed design with four main elements, none of which are employed in the Atlantic Yards design. These are in the four criteria that follow.

JJ Cites: [It is easy to identify such centers of district life and activity, because they are where people with leaflets to hand out choose to work (if permitted by the police). But there is no point in bringing parks to where people are, if in the process the reasons that the people are there are wiped out and the park is substituted for them. P. 101 . . . city districts with relatively large amounts of generalized park. . . seldom develop intense community focus on a park and intense love for it, . . .p. 102 Parks intensely used in generalized public-yard fashion tend to have four elements in their design which I shall call intricacy, centering, sun and enclosure. P. 103]

(For more on this subject see Noticing New York’s post: Monday, September 22, 2008, Should a Teardrop be Shed- Considering the Burden?)

Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card #4: Appropriate Density? NO

This is evaluation item #4 (of 47) of the Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card

Appropriate Density? NO

The absolutely incomparable density of Atlantic Yards is one of its most clearly controversial features. Jane Jacobs considered herself to be a proponent of density, describing in her book as dense the similarly dense neighborhoods of Brooklyn Heights and Greenwich Village, but she was not a proponent of a particular level of density which should be mathematically measured. Instead, she was a proponent of density at a level that would perform well, which would vary according to many other specific factors in play. She also called for gradual reductions of density when appropriate. Atlantic Yards is immensely more dense than, at least double, Manhattan and any area of New York City now or that might have been targets for such a density reduction at the time she wrote. High densities of Brooklyn Heights and Greenwich Village have remained similar to the time she wrote, though she favored those densities when the densities at the surrounding edges of those neighborhoods did not drop off. Since that time the edge of Brooklyn Heights has been built up which she would have favored. She mentions the Riverside Drive area in Manhattan with, twelve- and fourteen-story elevator apartments as having attained the highest density in the city at the time. For density performance purposes, she says that there shouldn’t be standardization of buildings and cites Greenwich Village as a model as managing to house people at densities ranging form 125 to 200 dwelling units per acre without standardization of buildings. Atlantic Yards is proposed to be substantially more dense 292 units per acre with buildings much taller than Riverside Drive. It will be 4 times the 51.2 units per acre density of Co-op City with its 26 story buildings. The recently planned community of Battery Park City will be about 153 units per acre (higher than the 147 units per acre in Manhattan’s densest areas) and is perhaps only about a hundred units currently. With an estimated residential population of 564 to 765 people per acre- in New York City units may average more, 2.8 residents- about the density would be many multiples of Manhattan’s average density of 104 people acre and the 292 units per acre would be about double the Manhattan’s highest density census districts at 147 units per acre. (Manhattan is the most densely populated county in the United States. Brooklyn’s has about 55 people per acre vs. Manhattan’s 104.6) More importantly Atlantic Yards does not meet Jacobs’ other prescriptions to achieve performing density, varied buildings built over time, on an interlacing of frequent streets that are added gradually. Jane Jacobs would almost certainly view Atlantic Yards as having a the kind of density that is too dense because, as she would say, it suppresses diversity rather than supporting it. It has been pointed out that if one departs from the North American continent one can find density comparable for that proposed for Atlantic Yards by going to the most densely populated neighborhood, Mongkok in Hong Kong, where density exceeds 640 inhabitants acre- This then means that people can live at such densities- But it doesn’t say why the precedent of this density should be set on this continent by awarding a monopoly without proper process to a low performing developer with poor design skills.

JJ Cites: [Also to be frank, I like dense cities best and care about them most. P.16 There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there. This includes dense concentration on the case of people who are there because fo residence. P. 151. City dwellings have to be intensive in their use of the land too, for reasons that go much deeper than cost of land. On the other hand, this does not mean that everyone can or should be put into elevator apartment houses to live - - or not any one or two types of dwellings. That kind of solution kills diversity by obstructing it form another direction. P. 202 In Brooklyn, New York, the most generally admired, popular and upgrading neighborhood is Brooklyn Heights; it has much the highest density of dwellings in Brooklyn. . . . In Manhattan, the most fashionable pocket of the midtown East Side and the most fashionable pocket of Greenwich Village have dwelling densities in the same high range as th heart of Brooklyn Heights. But an interesting difference can be observed. In manhattan, very popular areas, characterized by high degrees of vitality and diversity surround these more fashionable pockets. In these surrounding popular areas, dwellings go still higher. In Brooklyn Heights, on the other hand, the fashionable pocket is surrounded by neighborhoods where dwelling unit densities drop off; vitality and popularity drop off too. P. 103 We cannot understand the effects of high or low densities if we assume that the relationship between concentration of people and production of diversity is a simple, straight mathematical affair. P.205 As an extreme example, no concentration of residence, however high, is “sufficient” to generate diversity in regimented projects because diversity has been regimented out in any case. And much the same effects, for different reasons, can occur in unplanned city neighborhoods, where buildings are too standardized or the blocks are too long, or there is no mixture of other primary uses besides dwellings. P. 205 Densities are too low, or too high, when they frustrate city diversity instead of abetting it. This flaw in performance is why they are too low or too high. . . Right amounts are right because of how they perform. P.209 A numerical answer means less than a functional answer (and unfortunately can even deafen the dogmatic to the truer and more subtle reports that come in from life.) . . . It follows, however, that densities can get too high if they reach a point at which, for any reason they begin to repress diversity instead of stimulate it. Precisely this can happen and it is the main point in considering how high is too high. The reason dwelling densities can begin repressing diversity if they get too high is this: At some point standardization of the buildings must set in. This is fatal, because great diversity in age and types of buildings has a direct, explicit connection with diversity of population, diversity of enterprise and diversity of scenes. P. 212 (I)n this process of packing dwellings on given acreages of land, it does not do to get too efficient, and it never did. There must be leeway for variety among buildings. P. 213 When Riverside Drive in Manhattan was built up, twelve- and fourteen-story elevator apartments were apparently the answer for maximum packing efficiency and with this particular standardization as a base the highest dwelling density belt in Manhattan has been produced. P. 213 It is not easy to reconcile high densities with great variety in buildings, yet it must be attempted. . .Greenwich Village is such a place. It manages to house people at densities ranging form 125 to 200 dwelling units per acre without standardization of buildings. . . .the reason Greenwich Village can reconcile such high densities with such great variety is that a high proportion of the land which is devoted to residences (called net residential acres) is covered with buildings. . . It is efficient a use of the land itself, that it permits a good deal of “inefficiency” in buildings. P.214 It is hardly possible to expect that many different types of dwellings or their buildings can be added at any one time. To think they can is be is wishful thinking. P. 216 The very process of increasing density gradually but continually can result in increasing variety too. And thus can permit high ultimate densities without standardization. P.216 High ground coverages, necessary as they are for variety at high densities, can become intolerable, particularly as they approach 70 percent. They become intolerable if the land is not interlaced with frequent streets. Long blocks with high ground coverages are oppressive. Frequent street, because they are openings between buildings, compensate for high coverage of ground off the streets. P. 217 It would be possible to bring down densities of dwelling units in those exceptional areas where dwelling densities are too high, and it could do this gradually to avoid cataclysmic mass upheavals of population. P. 333]

(For more on the subject of the scale of Atlantic Yards a subject closely linked to density, see Noticing New York’s post: Friday, September 26, 2008,Weighing Scale)

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Coney Island Crowd: Plans Unveiled Tonight

We are convinced that Coney Island has a great future in store, building on its amusement area history.

The BAM Reveal of Coney Plans Tonight, Yes Tonight (Monday)

For that reason, everyone should want to be at tonight’s Imagine Coney event being presented by the Municipal Art Society; 6:30 PM at the BAM Cafe upstairs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. While MAS set it up so that you can make reservations (online) it was announced at one of the community charrettes that this is a more-the-merrier event and there is enough room so that they are suggesting that people bring all their interested friends. You will probably be safe going and bringing a lot of friends at the last minute.

The event will be the big reveal of plan a MAS collected design team has put together for Coney Island’s future. A website was set up and two public meetings (charrettes) were held to collect ideas, one on Coney and the other at the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza. We were at both.

Go and be thrilled and inspired. If you want, you can also do some homework first. The Imagine Coney site where the public can contribute suggestions has a lot of background and a write-up of suggestions already made. We also strongly suggest that you spend some time reading the Coney Island Visions report prepared by the Center for an Urban Future, undertaken in partnership with the Municipal Arts Society when it kicked off the Imagine Coney campaign. The report is a tight, thoughtfully edited compilation of the ideas of cultural, civic and design leaders contributing new ideas for Coney Island’s future.

Attention That Coney Island Deserves- - but Amanda From the City Is Prickly

As it deserves, Coney Island seems to be getting everybody’s attention, which is what is needed to save it. The ideas emerging are exciting. We like, for instance the idea of a Steeplechase Park-type ride that would traverse and visit a revitalized aquarium attraction. We hope that what is developed takes advantage of the opportunity to grow a strong local brand with a lot of edgy New York artist-style creativity.

While this kind of high-powered attention is exactly what will save Coney Island, City Planning Chairman Commissioner Amanda Burden made a strangely prickly statement to fend off the attention that community, the Municipal Art Society and the Center for an Urban Future are bringing to bear. Rather than recognizing that this will be the salvation of Coney Island, Ms. Burden was instructing MAS to back off, saying that unless MAS functioned only within the extreme constraints of control she wanted to dictate that:

. . . the Coney Island amusement area that we know and love will cease to exist.
(See: Wednesday, November 5, 2008, Back In the Coney Island Saddle?)

Dragging the City Along in the Right Direction; Another Debate With Amanda

At this point we are all worried that the city will have to be dragged every step of the way to a plan that will save Coney. There is every reason to be suspicious that the city either through its ill-motivation or incompetence, will be proceeding hell-bent on a course towards its destruction.

Even what may be considered to be good deeds get and deserve questioning. The city spent $11 million dollars to buy an acre of amusement park land. The motivation was questioned by the Brooklyn Paper in an editorial that generated an urban planning debate with a defensive Ms. Burden: Bloomy’s Coney baloney, October 16, 2008.

. . . . the real-estate deal is actually the first step in a process that will likely lead to a further weakening of Coney’s amusement zone. Here’s how:

Coney Island’s amusement area is currently zoned so that only amusements — rides, games of chance, Shoot the Freak booths and landmarks like the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel — can operate there.

* * * *

Yet the Bloomberg Administration wants to rezone the area as “park land” and then lease the land to amusement companies or a single theme-park operator to create a revitalized Coney Island with exciting new rides and outdoor and year-round indoor attractions

* * * *

And therein lies the problem.

Under questioning from The Brooklyn Paper, city officials admitted this week that if the area is rezoned as “park land,” virtually anything can be built there. The city zoning resolution does not require “park land” to be set aside as green space, to be devoid of commercial activity or, indeed, to be off-limits to housing development.

Actually, all it does is put such “park land” under the sole control of the mayor’s office. No rezoning hearings or public review process will kick in if the city later wants to build a hotel or a conference center or housing or a shopping mall in the so-called “People’s Playground.”

* * * *

Clearly, this week’s one-acre land purchase and the scheme to rezone the area as “park” isn’t about “saving” Coney Island — it’s about putting nine acres of prime Boardwalk-front land under mayoral control, wresting it away from a private developer whom this mayor simply does not like.

* * * *

The city did not need to buy that piece of land to “protect” the amusement zone; indeed, the site is currently home to the already-successful Deno’s Wonder Wheel park and, more important, could only be an amusement park, given the current zoning.

But once the area is rezoned as “park land,” all bets are off.
Ms. Burden wrote a letter to the editor contradicting the editorial’s analysis (City plan not Coney baloney: The Brooklyn Paper mailbag, October 30, 2008):

. . .While the city does propose to “map” the nine-acre open amusement area as parkland, it is not true that “virtually anything can be built” in mapped parkland. In fact, designation of property as “mapped parkland” permanently prohibits hotels, condos, convention centers and other similar commercial uses.

State legislation that will be sought by the administration will allow for a long-term lease of mapped parkland for amusement-related uses only, to promote the vitality of Coney Island’s amusement area while ensuring that incompatible uses can never be developed there.

Mapping the open amusement area as “parkland” is the best way to ensure that Coney Island’s amusements are protected irrespective of economic pressures — something existing zoning has failed to do. . .
While the city is off on the wrong track and needs to be questioned, the Brooklyn Paper is probably wrong and Ms. Burden right about whether “condos” could be built on park land even if some of what can and can’t be done will be determined prospectively by state legislation. It is more difficult to say who exactly is right about possibilities when it comes to the array of other possible uses the paper says might be permissible. Noticing New York has already suggested that perhaps it would be appropriate to use eminent domain to create an amusement district (much larger than “nine-acres”) and that would certainly entail public ownership, probably by the city. We think that zoning is likely not the way to go. Still, the Brooklyn Paper’s overall theme of being distrustful of mayoral control with lack of public review should not be dismissed, especially with this developer-oriented Mayor and administration. The Mayor certainly likes control over almost everything, but he is not the ideal candidate to get that control. Perhaps the land could be park land still protectively zoned for amusement use?

The initial parcel purchased by the city is only 1 acre at a cost of only $11 million dollars so it is only a cookie crumb of the overall picture. Without knowing the answer, we do find ourselves wondering why ULURP hasn’t been mentioned if the city is acquiring the acre of land in question.

Tale of Two Coney Island Charrettes: It Is Not Just the Amusement

A vital future as an amusement area is not the end of the story. The MAS presentation will probably focus on design and the culture of the amusement area. The two community charrettes MAS held were somewhat different. The second, held at the Brooklyn Library, involved community participants from throughout the region who focused primarily on the design and the culture of the amusement area. The first, involving many more local Coney Island residents focused on these same concerns but also on community residents' needs.

Coney and Affordable Housing

The local community has many needs associated with the fact that Coney Island is filled with a lot of affordable housing of various kinds. It is not very income-integrated when it comes to higher levels of income.

Affordable housing is almost invariably a carrot that comes into play when people debate prospective development plans these days. One thought on what would make sense in terms of developing housing in the area would be to think in terms of next-step housing, housing that would be attractive to people already living in Coney Island families who might want to move into housing that was a step up.

The New York City Housing Partnership programs may be building exactly the right kind of housing for this purpose. The housing involves at least one residential unit that is owner-occupied. There can be associated rental units which the owner rents out. The program can also build multi-family housing consisting of owner-occupied condominium or co-op units. The program is perfect for scatter-site infill building wherever there are vacant lots or where owners of smaller structures are willing to sell. Use of the program would probably also contribute to safety in the neighborhood, something else local residents are expressing an interest in.

No Sense in Selling Off the Community Jewels as an Enclave

What doesn’t make sense when it comes to dealing with a community striving to do better is to take away its primary asset, especially when like Coney Island, that asset could be a thriving income- and identity-producing asset. It should not be sold off as a luxury housing plus ill-conceived shopping mall enclave. The Coney Island amusement area acres are the community crown jewels. Those crown jewels can give the community income and identity but they are held in trust for the entire region. It makes no sense for anyone to sell them off for luxury housing and a shopping mall that could be produced anywhere and has no organic relationship to the beach that it will wall off.

One Other Thing to Think About

There is one other thing. It may be a temptation to think just about the Coney Island amusements while forgetting about the community’s social needs. It can be difficult to go from thinking about roller coasters and parachute jumps in one moment to roach control and AIDs education and treatment in another. There is something else that is sometimes difficult to remember. As low-lying ocean front, Coney Island, like neighboring Far Rockaway, is quite vulnerable to a hurricane.

There was a big Category 2 storm that devastated Far Rockaway and the Jamaica Bay in 1893. It washed away resort hotels and what was once an entire recreational island (Hog Island). (See: The Gowanus Lounge, Friday, June 01, 2007, In Honor of Hurricane Season: The Hog Island Story.) It has been a long time since a hurricane affected the area (Hurricane Donna brought several feet of water to Far Rockaway) but with global warming/weirding, the odds are up. Storms do come up this way. You only have to go back to 1938 to find a Category 5 storm that made landfall on Long Island as a Category 3 storm and devastated new England and Providence, Rhode Island.

Perhaps impractically we are busy building a lot in the Rockaways, including subsidized housing that is unlikely to do well in the event of a storm. Some thought should be given to what we build in Coney Island in terms of what will stand up to a storm or can be replaced afterward.

Coney Island Crowd

At the community charrettes people kept talking about how they like to people watch the crowds at Coney Island. They also always said they liked the Mermaid Parade. I kept track but between the two charrettes I only heard complimentary mention of the Astro Baseball stadium once.

Now it's Coney Island’s off-season, but you may get a crack at Coney Island people watching if you are there tonight. The added benefit is that once the city gets the idea that there is a crowd moving in this direction to save Coney Island, the city might get on the ball.

Some Other Worthwhile Posts of Imagine Coney (all from Atlantic Yards Report)

Sunday, November 16, 2008
Initial results of Imagine Coney to be presented tomorrow

Wednesday, November 12, 2008
In Coney Island Visions report, new ideas, express dreams, and AY avoidance

Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Imagine Coney? Here are three ideas: amusement museum; eating contest Hall of Fame; and street hoops haven

Tuesday, November 04, 2008
As Coney plan teeters, MAS enlists international experts for whirlwind workshop

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Mayor, The Times’ Timing, and a Proper Ordering

The New York Times editorial page now seems to have a new and interesting relationship with the Mayor. It comes down to the Times’ timing. We are not sure what is the proper metaphor to offer. Is it that you can’t lock the barn door after the horse has escaped? Or that you shouldn’t put the horse before the cart? Or maybe it is a slightly reversed variant on the classic “You broke it: You bought it,” that comes out “You bought it? Guess what; If you didn’t notice, it’s broken, so now you gotta fix it.”


Reining in a Non-term-limited Mayor: LPC and Developer Conduct

We have asked once before whether the Times editorial page was ineffectually pleading to rein in the Mayor, after the fact, atoning for the damage they did when endorsing the notion that Mr. Bloomberg should be ushered into a third term by special exemption from term limits. The time we are referring to, we and a Times editorial were both concerned about the Landmarks and Preservation Commission doing its job so that it is not “routinely outflanked by developers.” To wit, we wrote:

Is the Times editorial page doing penance or trying to make up for the damage it has done by its earlier editorial on term limits? The editorial page previously expressed the belief that Mayor Bloomberg should be unleashed to serve a third term by a special exemption from term limits, but then yesterday's editorial vaguely hopes that the Mayor will begin reining in developers, something he has never been willing to do. How valid could such hope be?
(See: Sunday, October 19, 2008, Building the Right Landmarks Case; Wrong Building which talks about the Commission’s lack of independence from the Mayor.)

Reining in a Non-term-limited Mayor: Editorial Page Deja Vu & Campaign Spending

The Times editorial page is at it again, so we are going to have to ask an awfully similar question. It’s going to seem like deja vu with the Times again hoping to rein in the Mayor after propelling Mr. Bloomberg perhaps irretrievably close to his coveted third term.

The Times editorial page recently ran an editorial, Mayor Bloomberg’s Opportunity, (Published: November 9, 2008), which pleadingly asks Mr. Bloomberg not to spend so much of his personal wealth on his reelection campaign that will make the election unfair. The Times’ pleading request (“Mr. Bloomberg owes New Yorkers one more thing that will even further enhance their choices next September.”) came after Bloomberg had signed the term limits extension that the Times advocated the City Council should pass for him. The Times’ editorial page is even more responsible for the bill’s enactment; after their first editorial favoring a lifting of term limits they augmented their efforts to influence the City Council vote with a second editorial the week of the City Council vote, also advocating the bill’s passage. (See: Editorial: Term Limits and the Council, Published: October 22, 2008.)

Reining in a Non-term-limited Mayor: “Unseemly Wheeling and Dealing” on Term Limits

When the Times ran the second editorial endorsing a term limits extension for Bloomberg, they realized they were already playing catch-up because, by then, building on the strength of the Times and other major paper endorsements (apparently bargained for by Bloomberg before any public discussion or debate of the issue), Bloomberg had made a deal with fellow billionaire Ronald Lauder to effectively have the extended term limits apply only to Bloomberg. This possibility having not been foreseen, the Times had to backtrack and innoculate itself retroactively by figuring out how to take a stand against such a bad governance practice. In the end, already along for the ride, they effectively condoned the result of questionable “unseemly wheeling and dealing” by the Mayor.

The Times original editorial (Editorial: The Limits of Term Limits, Published: September 30, 2008) espoused that the City Council should “abolish term limits altogether” but the editorial led, in its first paragraph, with an echo of Bloomberg’s recent opportunistic argument that his desired third term is important because of his ability to lead during a financial crisis:

The law is particularly unappealing now because it is structured in a way that
would deny New Yorkers — at a time when the city’s economy is under great stress — the right to decide for themselves whether an effective and popular mayor should stay in office.
The Times second editorial endeavored to cope with the Lauder, deal reemphasizing that it advocated total abolition of term limits:

There has been some unseemly wheeling and dealing on both sides leading up to this vote, including an arrangement between Mr. Bloomberg and Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics heir who has been a longtime proponent of term limits and helped underwrite the 1993 referendum that first put term limits on the books.

In exchange for Mr. Lauder’s support for a one-term extension, Mr. Bloomberg has promised him a seat on a charter commission that — if the Council votes to extend the limits — would revisit the issue in 2010, and, quite possibly, call for another referendum. If it comes to that, we would recommend that the commission call for abolishing term limits altogether.
Forethought Missing: Unconsidered Question of Bloomberg’s Expertise to Lead in a Financial Crisis

If the Times editorial page can be excused for giving this after-the-fact reprimand to the Mayor because they failed to foresee his “wheeling and dealing” with Ronald Lauder, there are enough concerns that the Times should clearly have given thought to beforehand and didn’t. We have commented before that the Times editorial page endorsement of the notion, (expressed above), that Bloomberg has special qualifications to lead in a financial crisis, preceded any news analysis as to whether this is true. A Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by a member of that publication’s editorial board tackled the subject before the term limits vote to conclude that Bloomberg isn’t well qualified. We testified beforehand and have supplied two Noticing New York pieces also concluding that as a crisis-insider Bloomberg is unsuited to the role. To date, the Times had not provided a regular news analysis on this subject. It has been left to Times “About New York” columnist Jim Dwyer and Daily News sports (and sometimes political) columnist Mike Lupica to provide analysis agreeing with us. Both columnists keyed in on Charles Bagli’s recent story about out-of-control stadium deal expenses which appeared after the City Council acted though the story’s revelations should not have been a surprise.

(For the stories referred to in the paragraph above see: The Wall Street Journal’s New York Will Survive Without Bloomberg: The mayor never bothered to prepare the city for any lean years, by Jason L. Riley, October 16, 2008, Thursday, October 23, 2008, Bloomberg Qualified Financial Crisis Leader? He Can Learn Says Schumer!Saturday, October 25, 2008 More Discredit of Bloomberg as Qualified Financial Crisis Leader, For Sports Teams, Mayors Play Ball at the City’s Expense, by Jim Dwyer, November 7, 2008, Yankees' and Mets' new stadiums are NYC's real tax burden, by Mike Lupica, Sunday, November 9th 2008, As Stadiums Rise, So Do Costs to Taxpayers, by Charles V. Bagli, November 4, 2008)

Reining in a Non-term-limited Mayor: Wealth-tilted Playing Field

Now that the term limits extension bill has been passed, the Times belatedly notes in its latest editorial that there have already been “two elections in which he (Bloomberg) campaigned with more than $150 million of his own money.” Along with their after-the-fact pleading that the Mayor limit his campaign spending, the Times harkens back to their own early `lamenting’ (their word) of Bloomberg’s records of spending heavily:

Ever since Mr. Bloomberg began running for mayor in 2001, we have lamented the way he used his oversized checkbook to get his message across. Back then, at least, he was an unknown. Some of the $75 million that Mr. Bloomberg spent in 2001 helped him introduce himself to most New Yorkers.
They acknowledge a titling of the field: “The mayor has a constitutional right to spend his own money, of course. But he does more than tilt the field.”

There are those of us who ahead of time thought that these exact same concerns were good reasons to embrace term limits and testified so when we testified before the City Council about all the reasons it would be unfair and improper to afford the Mayor a special third term. We also testified that the Mayor tilted the playing field still further by using surprise to change term limits on his own timetable. (See: Tuesday, October 21, 2008, Time to Report on the Best City Council Hearing Testimony.)

In the same vein, the Times acknowledges that Bloomberg’s incumbency further tilts an unfairly tilted field about which they are concerned:

Mr. Bloomberg is an established political name, not only in New York City but in most of the country. He is an incumbent, which gives him a head start since he will be heavily covered by news organizations.
Illusory Public “Choice”?

In the very next sentence they seem to indicate that the lack of fairness this poses also deprives the public of the very “choice” which the Mayor argued was the reason he (as opposed to Mayors before or after) should have the special privilege of a third term:

But most fundamentally, because his main argument is that he is giving voters more choice by running once more, that choice should be as fair as possible.
Times’ Viewpoint: “Fairness” vs. Merely Curbing “Public Expense”

That just-mentioned sentence is the editorial’s most direct mention of `fairness.’ The editorial preoccupies itself with another concern: expense. You almost get the feeling that if fairness could not be addressed, the Times would be satisfied if public expense could be limited. The editorial notes that Bloomberg’s spending could trigger a great deal of extra public expense. The editorial asks that, though he would not be accessing public funds that would trigger campaign spending limits, the Mayor should voluntarily comply with those limits. They note what will happen if he does not.

If the mayor does not respect the limits, he will trigger what is called the Daddy Warbucks provision, which makes the whole election more expensive for everyone. When one candidate spends unlimited private resources, the other candidates no longer have limits on their own campaign spending. And the matching funds, provided by the public, increase substantially as well.
Sticking with Fairness; Reining in a Non-term-limited Mayor: Unfair Use of Charities

Sticking with the subject of fairness, the Times editorial page has some more catching up to do. The Mayor’s wealth is not only a problem when it comes to regulated campaign spending. We have written about how the Mayor’s wealth is a problem when it comes to unregulated manipulation of charities for political gain. The same concerns were written about in the news pages of the Times after the Times editorial page had made up its mind to support the Mayor’s bid to be unleashed for a third term. (See: Monday, October 20, 2008, “Charity?” We Begin to Groan.)

We first started commenting warily about the Mayor’s use of charities when we did some partial uncloaking of his charitable money maneuvering, observing how he was congratulating himself with an award to the New York City Waterfalls. The Waterfalls was a project he had personally adopted as his own in multiple ways. (See: Wednesday, October 15, 2008, Self-Congratulation “Befalls” a Man Who Would Know No Limits.) Lately, there is more news of other instances involving this strange admixture of hidden Bloomberg charity funds and Bloombergian self-congratulations; see the latest New York Times story: Some Award Winners Share Trait: Bloomberg’s Charity, by Michael Barbaro.

A City Benefitted by Mayor Who Doesn’t “Owe?” Check Your Assumptions

Getting back to the Times’ new editorial on campaign spending; the editorial observes (with seeming endorsement) that, though it has been unfettered, Bloomberg has an argument for spending his personal wealth on his own campaigns. His argument is that by doing so he is not, like other politicians, in the pocket of campaign contributors:

Mr. Bloomberg has often argued that by using his own money, he does not owe anybody anything. . . . He could still use his own money — just not as much of it, certainly not the $100 million that some inside City Hall have predicted he could spend next year.
Bloomberg may argue that he has managed to avoid owing anybody anything but to give credit for this would be to presuppose that public benefit flows from the situation. It is not at all apparent that it does. What about those developers `routinely outflanking’ the public interest mentioned previously? Clyde Haberman has commented that the “Bloomberg administration . . has yet to meet a developer to which it wishes to say no.” What if we had a different mayor who was in fact taking campaign funds from the real estate industry with frank acknowledgment? Would capitulations to the industry’s wishes be happening any less fast or furiously than now? It is hard to believe that such could be the case.

We do not know exactly what makes a wealthy man like Bloomberg tick. He may be wealthier beyond any need to be richer. He can’t eat any better and he is at that “What can you buy that you can't already afford?” stage (See: Tuesday, November 4, 2008, Remembering; Not Forgetting in Chinatown). The Mayor’s attraction to power is out in the open, given that he was recently willing to pay such a high price to stay in power. Some explanation is likely to be found in the way funds flow through the Mayor’s charities. The Mayor may claim by not taking campaign funds he owes nobody anything. But we have observed that the way he uses charities to accept and intermingle funds from developers points to quid pro quo obligations. It presents situations that are a challenge to distinguish from old-fashioned kickback behavior.

The Wrong-ordered Approach to Ordering up Good Behavior from a Mayor

The moral? There is a proper order for things. On three separate post-term-limit-extension-endorsement occasions the Times editorial page has already pleaded for better mayoral behavior; protecting landmarks from developers, campaign spending and finally with respect to “unseemly wheeling and dealing” on term limits itself. In addition, the Times editorial page has a lot more after-the-fact catch-up to do in terms of observing and demanding other better behavior from the Mayor; not abusing charities and living up to the rigors of fiscal discipline included. In the proper order of things, it is worth taking time to think about important decisions before someone wants you to rush them through. If you want better behavior from a mayor or politician, you have a better chance asking for it before rather than after endorsing a blank check for another four years. Afterwards, you are left to pleadingly hope.

If you engage in the bad behavior of doing things in the wrong order, don’t expect that you can order up good behavior from the Mayor afterwards.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card #3: Avoidance of Monotony? NO

This is evaluation item #3 (of 47) of the Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card

Avoidance of Monotony? NO

Jane Jacobs objected to large swaths monotonous real estate. Atlantic Yards, which is being built by the same developer, with the same architect at about the same time, while tearing down buildings that are different, involves many examples of monotony.

JJ Cites: [Reducing the city and countryside alike to monotonous, unnourishing gruel. .p.7 Almost nobody travels willingly from sameness to sameness and repetition to repetition, even if the physical effort required is trivial. p. 129 Differences, not duplication, make for cross-use and hence for a person’s identification with an area greater than his immediate street network. Monotony is the enemy of cross-use and hence of functional unity. P. 130 Nor can districts be duplicates of one another; they differ immensely, and should. . . An interesting district has a character of its own and subspecialities of its own. It draws users from outside (it has little truly urban economic variety unless it does), and its own people go forth. . . . This movement has not weakened the district; coincident with it, the district has grown stronger. P. 133 If the sameness of use is shown candidly for what it is- - sameness- - it looks monotonous. Superficially, this might be thought of as a sort of order, however dull. But esthetically, it unfortunately also carries with it a deep disorder: the disorder if conveying no direction. In places stamped with the monotony of repetition of sameness you move, but in moving you seem to have gotten nowhere. North is the same as south or east as west. Sometimes north, south, east and west are all alike as they are when you stand within the grounds of a large project. It takes differences- - - many differences- - - cropping up in different directions to keep us oriented. Scenes of thoroughgoing sameness lack these natural announcements of direction and movement, or are scantly furnished with them, and so are deeply confusing, This is a kind of chaos. P. 224. Homogeneity of uses poses an unavoidable esthetic dilemma: Shall the homogeneity look as homogeneous as it is, and be frankly monotonous? Or shall it try not to look as homogeneous as it is and go for eye-catching, but meaningless and chaotic differences? P. 226 In architecture as in literature and the drama, it is the richness of human variation that gives vitality and color to the human setting. . Considering the hazard of monotony . . . the most serious fault in our zoning laws lies in the facts they permit an entire area to be devoted to a single use. P.229]

Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card #2: Avoidance of Monopolistic Centers of Real Estate? NO

This is evaluation item #2 (of 47) of the Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card

Avoidance of Monopolistic Centers of Real Estate? NO

Jane Jacobs objected to large swaths of real estate being owned by the same owners and developers. Atlantic Yards, which could be developed like other modern projects by multiple developers, has been given over to only one without proper competitive bid. Through condemnation, the developer is being given additional unnecessary acreage to develop. That, together with adjoining sites already owned by the same developer, will create 30 acres of dense monopolistically-owned acreage. (In addition, the public is already subsidizing ownership of a significant amount additional acreage owned by the same developer not very far away in the downtown Brooklyn MetroTech Center.)

JJ Cites: [Monopolistic shopping centers: p. 4 Meanwhile, although monopoly insures the financial success planned for it, it fails the city socially. P.71 One-age construction in city areas is sometimes protected nowadays from the threat of more efficient and responsive commercial competition. This protection- - - which is nothing more than commercial monopoly- - -. . .. P. 192 The point of cities is multiplicity of choice. P. 340 But multiplicity of choice and intensive city trading depend also on immense concentrations of people, and on intricate minglings of uses and complex interweaving paths. P. 340]

Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card #1: Avoidance of Regimentation? NO

This is evaluation item #1 (of 47) of the Jane Jacobs Atlantic Yards Report Card

Avoidance of Regimentation? NO

Jane Jacobs marshaled cogent objections to the false order of “regimented” building. The replicated floorplates and building placement on the Atlantic Yards project involves such uninspired replicated regimentation.

JJ Cites: [Mr. Moses conceded that some housing might be “ugly, regimented, institutional, identical, conformed, faceless.” But he suggested that such housing could be surrounded with parks. P. 90 In cities, liveliness and variety attract more liveliness; deadness and monotony repel life. P. 99. As an extreme example, no concentration of residence, however high, is “sufficient” to generate diversity in regimented projects because diversity has been regimented out in any case. P. 205 We are constantly being told simple-minded lies about order in cities, talked down to in effect, assured that duplication represents order. It is the easiest thing in the world to seize hold of a few forms, give then a regimented regularity, and try to palm this off in the name of order. However, simple regimented regularity and significant systems of functional order are seldom coincident in this world. P. 375, 376]

Jane Jacobs Report Card for Atlantic Yards . . .Megadevelopment Gets an “f”

Early this year (January 26, 2008) we did an op-ed piece for The Brooklyn Paper, How Jacobs would view Yards (Jane Jacobs Report Card for Atlantic Yards). That piece was derived from a longer article with detailed backup analysis. The article, which was written when Eliot Spitzer was still Governor, is set forth below. It will eventually link to the backup analysis which we will put up in a series of posts.

* * * *


BY: Michael Desmond Delahaye White

I am a little annoyed with my uncle right now. My uncle and namesake Ralph Delahaye Paine, Jr. was publisher of both Time, Inc.’s “Architectural Forum” and “Fortune” when Jane Jacobs worked for “Architectural Forum” and when she wrote for its sister publication “Fortune” the article on urban downtowns that three years later evolved into her seminal book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (1961). When I asked my uncle whether I should add a masters in urban planning to my graduate degrees he said “yes,” but he never told me about Jane Jacobs, though he spoke of hiring her mentor, William H. (“Holly”) Whyte.

Jane Jacobs is famous for derailing the gargantuana and group think dogma that was steering the urban planning and architectural community of the time. The New York Times editor Harrison Salisbury said of Jacobs’ book: “It fairly crackles with bright honesty and common sense” and the book is even now on the best-selling table at the city’s Barnes and Nobles. After Jane Jacobs the kind of urban renewal mistakes that were so prevalent before halted, and more enlightened approaches prevailed. Among other things, Jacobs is credited with having, through activism, stopped the Lower Manhattan Expressway which would have leveled SoHo. She accomplished what she did by coming from the outside and pointing out the obvious.

Jane Jacobs, a one-time resident of Brooklyn Heights (I am one now), used insight gained from living in this neighborhood and particularly her later Greenwich Village neighborhood to offer examples of the kind of urban vibrancy that is within reach when prescriptions she offered for the city development are followed. Though often thought of as a liberal, her prescriptions were based on a scrupulous respect for not interfering with the organic life that flows naturally from essential finely woven economic relationships.

Jane Jacobs is on my mind these days. Partly because of the new Municipal Art Society “Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York” exhibit and the many excellent accompanying panel forums and walking tours (Ms. Jacobs would avow that seeing is essential to understanding neighborhoods) hosted by the Society and others such as Center for the Living City. The Rockefeller Foundation provided support for the Jacobs Exhibit as it did the seminal book. Jane Jacobs is also on my mind because the future of New York stands to be greatly shaped by the proposed Atlantic Yards megadevelopment which surely would have gotten Ms Jacobs’ attention.

Though I was working in the field of public development and finance, Atlantic Yards escaped my attention in its incipient stages, - I was working hard on other matters such as public authority reform. A number of things, such as its truly astounding proposed density, escaped my attention. I assumed that government, of which I was a part, was looking out for my interests, something I no longer believe to have been the case. The megadevelopment is a project deserving the utmost scrutiny.

With that in mind, I went through the principles and guidance provided in Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” to create a report card consisting of 47 enumerated criteria to review and score the qualities of Atlantic Yards. The full Report Card evaluation (is /will be) available on line via the link below.

The report card covers all of Jane Jacobs’ headline standards such as the prescription for short blocks and frequent streets, a good close-grained mingling of buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones. It deals with some of her more obvious and therefore less emphasized guidance. Don’t expect Jacobian endorsement of the megadevelopment’s 15-story illuminated electronic billboard. It covers her belief in “performing” density and mixed uses, issues critical to the project. And it derives several standards from her writings associated with her deep skepticism and reserve about the use of eminent domain. Across the board, the megadevelopment in almost all categories scores with almost complete negativity.

Jane Jacobs pointed out that “big plans” lead to “big mistakes.” Her thinking also points out that when enormous subsidies are misdirected with disrespect for the city’s vital fabric, then those mistakes are bigger and government is much more culpable for the harm.

There has been criticism that the gubernatorial use of the Empire State Development Corporation has sidestepped the public’s participation in the planning of Atlantic Yards; Jane Jacobs believed public input is a vital planning ingredient. In, truth, there hasn’t been any planning process in which the public could have participated. Jane Jacobs brought to heel professionals that were collectively headed in the wrong direction. The flaws of Atlantic Yards are not those of today’s mainstream professionals. The megadevelopment was cobbled together by the Ratner organization. To say that government agencies planned it would be to see an emperor wearing clothes. In 2004, explaining the failures of his Atlantic Center Mall (adjoining the proposed megadevelopment) Bruce Ratner said: “When I started, I did not have any understanding of the importance of architecture.” It is doubtful that in a few short years Mr. Ratner has graduated from not understanding the importance of architecture to understanding the much greater complexities of megadevelopment and city building. The F Jane Jacobs would have given this project speaks for itself. It also gets a zero for effort.

In reviewing “Death and Life” for the New York Times in 1961 Lloyd Rodwin explained the conspicuous unsuccessfulness of the “big efforts” to do something about our cities as due to a widespread “lack of sensitivity” especially among those who matter, “which is perhaps what is most wrong with our cities today.” 46 years later history repeats itself. Jane Jacobs died April 25, 2006. My uncle is gone. We, the living, win our own battles. I know from my experience in government that in the face of informed public opinion this megadevelopment is on fragile footing. One reason current plans are unlikely to happen as proposed is that, as the report card documents, those plans include so many easily recognized fatal flaws.

(Link to Jane Jacobs Report Card)

Michael D. D. White, is a real estate development, housing and public finance attorney, with a masters degree in urban planning and a background in public authority governance.