Tuesday, November 11, 2008

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.

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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.

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