Thursday, February 28, 2013

Say “NO” When Communities Are Blackmailed For Basic Services: Don’t Encourage The Bastards!

Bigger building Walentas' Two Trees Development wants to build with zoning change.  Click to enlarge- (or withhold vital city services to enlarge?)
When I was in urban planning school in the 1970s I came up with what I thought was a great idea.  I was especially proud of it because it seemed to me that no one had thought of it before.  It wasn’t in any of the reading I’d done, nor anything like it.  Although I have now read all of Jane Jacobs’ books I don’t remember her addressing anything like it.  (It should be understood that Jane Jacobs, the great urbanist and thinker, did not consider herself an urban planner, but rather a critic of that profession which earned her scorn for being capable of so many arrogant mistakes.)

My urban planning student idea concerned the placement of those things that society needs but that neighborhoods shun hosting in their midst.  My quintessential example at the time was a prison.  Other examples are trash disposal or trash incineration sites or sewage treatment plants.  It occurred to me that to make things more equitable, the things shunned should be paired with things neighborhoods might want.  So I thought of putting the local jail for incarceration together on the same site or in the same building with a local police station.  I know that not every neighborhood wants a police station. (Police, among other things, tend take over local streets with parking, often angled to fit more cars in.)  But when I was conceptualizing this it was in the '70s: Crime was higher and I happened to grow up in a Gramercy Park neighborhood where the local police station and police academy seemed to be viewed as a benefit.

An example of this idea being effectuated in real life is the 28-acre Riverbank State Park built on the roof of North River Sewage Treatment Plant jutting out from Harlem’s Hudson River shoreline between 137th and 145th Streets.  The city got a sewage treatment plant and in return the people of Harlem got the amenity of park, although some would say that Harlem nevertheless got the short end of the deal accepting a plant other communities didn’t want and was then doubly shafted when the park was completed late with promised park amenities failing to materialize and the park budget being repeatedly cut.  It was even closed for a while in 2010.  The sewage treatment plant opened in1986 with noisome smells not under control.   The park, planned from the beginning, finally opened in May of 1993.

A view of the plant and park from New York City's website
As you can readily see from this one real-world example there is a lot of Devil-in-the-details in making such a plan work.  But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some genius in the essence of it.  Nevertheless, since this the idea for putting a park over the North River Sewage Treatment Plant goes back to at least 1973 when funding was obtained for it, a few years before I was in urban planning school, I can’t successfully claim that I was the first one to conceive of pairing that which is desirable to a community with that which is not.

That Was Sort Of A Good Idea, But Here's A Bad One       

It may seem strange that I am beginning an article with an idea that I credit as having meritorious aspects as my preface to excoriating the astoundingly horrible new urban planning strategy that this article is really about.  That really horrible new approach to city planning, which I urge communities to reject out of hand and refuse, absolutely, in any way to collaborate with, is the strategy of withholding basic city services in order to bribe/blackmail communities into accepting bad development that they don’t otherwise want.

I am beginning with a potentially good idea as prelude to discussing this really terrible practice in order to make important distinctions, even if a few of them might seem subtle. The distinctions are important for people to understand and appreciate how bad this new practice is.

As best as I can date it, this new highly objectionable bribery/blackmail strategy originated in the Bloomberg era during which it has been resorted to by city officials with despicably rampantness as a device to push through development approvals.  You can read about it here: Friday, February 1, 2013, City Strategy Of Withholding Basic City Services To Blackmail Public Into Accepting Bigger Development.

In that previous Noticing New York post you can read about the smoking gun e-mails that showed that government officials were intentionally holding back on providing a much needed community school in order blackmail the community to accept a bigger Walentas developer Dock Street project project than the one the community had previously rejected.  (That Walentas Dock Street project was strong-armed through the City Council by Speaker Christine Quinn, in an unusual move, over the objections of the local city council member.)  You can also read how essentially the same thing is now being done with another Walentas project near BAM, where a library is being promised if the community tolerates nearly doubling the size of that project.

Libraries and schools are essential community services and provision of them should not be conditioned on putting through bad development.  I’ll discuss this more in a moment.  First a segue to make distinctions.

A Number of Distinctions Worth Making (This Way You Don't Have to Go To Urban Planning School)

Brooklyn law School's Feil Hall as seen from the Brook of the Brooklyn Detention Center, 2008
What we are talking about here is not any of the following:
    •    Planning measures that “mask” objectionable development.  A number of years ago, in the early 2000s, I communicated with Borough President Marty Markowitz (as a private citizen ) to support a variance to allow greater height and density for Brooklyn Law School’s Feil Hall, being built to provide residences for law students.  I am a fan of development and favor adding density when appropriately done.  (I am also an alumni of the law school.)  I made the argument that added density in this area of town, near a confluence of subway lines, was good.  (I later worried that Mr. Markowitz might afterwards have thought that this was a valid argument for the extraordinary density of Atlantic Yards- It is not.)  I also made the argument that adding density at that location on Brooklyn’s State street near court street would help mask (by helping to overwhelm them) the negative aspects of the jail there, the Brooklyn House of Detention.  I guess I was sort of hearkening back to my earlier planning school idea.  Years later there was another thing I wondered about my communications with Borough President Markowitz: Whether I had inspired his plan launched later to hide the Brooklyn House of Detention in a sandwich between two new abutting condominiums.   The scheme, perhaps not so harebrained as you might think, could have somehow worked.  But only if the functions of the jail were not interfered with. 

    •    Cleaning up after a landfill.  After the many years a landfill is in operation clean-up goes on for many more years frequently to create a park.  It might sound similar to the exchange in Harlem where a park accompanied a plan for waste disposal.  By contrast, the period during which the negativities of the landfill are endured are so removed in time from the day when the benefits after clean-up are finally enjoyed, it is not the same thing.  It is not concurrent: The population that endures the negatives may ultimately with the passage of time and community change be generations different from the population that one day benefits in what maybe a gentrifying neighborhood.

    •    Developer fees.  Many suburban communities jump on the chance to charge subdivision developers fees that will pay for the assumed additional costs of a growing community: enlarging schools, police and fire departments, building roads, etc.  The wisdom of such approaches can be debated.  In New York City we tend to do the opposite, the wisdom of which is also subject to question: We try to encourage new development by exempting it from paying taxes.  Doing both, charging fees and encouraging through exemption from fees/taxes is essentially chaos, which, unfortunately doesn’t mean that it doesn’t sometimes happen.  It absolutely does.  If you exempt new development from fees then you hope that in a big city like New York all the other taxpayers can carry the load.  But if you get a big surge in development across the city or a single really big project in one location, suddenly overburdening existing services, then you are arguably in the same situation that causes suburbs to argue that, as a matter of policy, they should charge fees when big developments come on line.

    •    Inclusionary zoning.  In New York City “inclusionary zoning” is a term used to describe the creation of “affordable” housing units in new construction or development by requiring in the zoning code that such new development contains a percentage of such units.  The term evolved as an antonym term and counter to what is referred to as “exclusionary zoning,” the prime example being when a suburb creates zoning restrictions such as large minimum lot requirements aimed at making it too expensive for lower-income families to reside in an area.  A practice like minimum acreage zoning thwarts the provision of more affordable housing a free market would otherwise provide.   In New York City it is different, almost the opposite: The free market doesn’t incline itself to provide affordable housing for lower-income families in gentrifying neighborhoods and inclusionary zoning is intended to serve as a counter to free market decisions.  Whenever one decides to counter the natural choices of the free market sober thought should be devoted to whether the intervention is, indeed, as wise as believed.

In one respect the city’s inclusionary zoning may be thought of as a good tool to buffer the rampant market forces unleashed by government when it significantly upzones an area, potentially clearing an area almost as effectively as urban renewal (although rebuilding is more likely under this scenario).  It is what in Noticing New York articles I have referred to as a death sentence by density.  Upzonings, especially abrupt and big ones, can result in the removal of many affordable housing units that might have happily persisted without such provoked redevelopement.  Inclusionary zoning requirements can reduce the incentive to rush forward with demolitions and can also help replace the affordable units that disappear when they are demolished.  For the city to offer an elective option to developers to build at greater density if they include affordable housing units is probably bad policy (even if it might buttress the legal defensibility of the practice) because there isn't a true either/or involved: Developers will always make the election that is best for them, not for the public.  They will obey the math of what the market dictates.  Meanwhile, the most desirable They will obey the math of what the market dictates.  Meanwhile, the most desirable density to have in an area is what it is, irrespective of the number of affordable housing units created. And what should be the desirable number of affordable units replacing old ones should simply be whatever it is, irrespective of density.  The two should not be intermixed and then left to a developer's decided vote on what is best for them, not the public.  Bottom line though, a policy of steering the market so that it replaces units it is destroying and would otherwise fail to provide is not the same as that other strategy we are about to return to and discuss again: the ploy of withholding basic city services to blackmail the public for tolerance of otherwise undesirable development.
The Brooklyn House of Detention (2008) proposed to be sandwiched between two condominiums 
 A Tale of (Maybe Two) City Libraries  

Pacific Branch Library 25 4th Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11217, on Pacific Street right near the "Barclays" arena
The library that is proposed to be put into the Walentas building if the community tolerates the upzoning of that building is being talked about by the Brooklyn Public Library system as a replacement that would help serve as a premise for the BPL to sell another library, the Pacific branch library at 4th Avenue and Pacific Street.  The community has been fighting to preserve the Pacific branch, not wanting to see it demolished.  So it makes sense that many community activists see this as a doubly-damning strategy: Blackmailing for a library conjoined with the removal of a wanted library.  Consequently, many activists oppose the library in the Walentas building simply because of the way its creation would put the Pacific library in much greater jeopardy of being closed, sold and demolished.  That blackmailing for the greater density is also involved is icing on this cake.
(*  Landmarking, of that Library at the community’s behest, the first Carnegie Library opened in Brooklyn has been held up by Robert Tierney, Bloomberg’s City Landmarks Commissioner since 2004.)
Another activist I spoke to noted how the demand for library services is growing, that the city is a lot denser in these neighborhoods (and growing wealthier). So he offered the idea: Why not have two libraries?  Why not have two, especially, if as originally conceived, the library that goes into the Walentas building is an entirely different kind of library, a performing arts library or a kind of artsy library oriented to a more upper echelon sort of crowd visiting BAM across the street?  (Note that these "trades" raise all sorts of risks of `bait and switch" deals, particularly since the public has so little ability to enforce them.)

In other words, (and this is something I could conceivably get behind and endorse): The calculation was that two libraries are better than one.  So the thought was: Let’s demand two.

Don't Encourage Them!

That’s fine, but only so long as the community does not engage in this kind of bargaining for public benefit.  The community should not be agreeing to tolerate undesirable extra density for the Walentas building in order to get a library.  Why? . . .

. ..   Because, What is the expression?: “It only encourages the bastards!”

Each time such a blackmailing scheme works, each time the community engages in such negotiations, it makes it seem more right, more expected, more the status quo.  It becomes ever so much easier for city planning officials to do it again.

Bad development is bad development.  Good development is good development.  Bad development* doesn't become good development because the community has been bribed with a library or other essential city service that should have been provided anyway.
(* Such trading for bad development is, for example,  the story of Atlantic Yards.  The question must be asked with respect to Atlantic Yards: Was the-- fake--  promise of “affordable housing” and doing inside deals with Ratner an excuse for ACORN and other signers of the so-called “Community Benefits Agreement” to approve, no questions asked or judgment exercised, a mega-monopoly, inordinate subsidies, absurd density, bad design and giving up public streets and avenues. . .Very few of the people opposing Atlantic Yards are able to forgive what Bertha Lewis of ACORN and other signers of the Atlantic Yards “CBA” did when they sold out the community in this regard.)
The reason these schemes that blackmail through the withholding of basic services should not be tolerated is because it becomes a potent incentive for the powers that be in this city to look for other basic services that can be withheld to bargain for other exchanges, other bad development harmful to the communities of New York.  Ergo, the proposed increase of density for the Walentas building needs to be evaluated entirely on its own: It is either a good or a bad thing and should be approved solely on that basis.  It cannot be bargained for by withholding basic services.

It's axiomatic: You don’t negotiate with hostage takers.  You might talk with them to try to bring them back into a more human frame of mind, but you do not negotiate with them.

One parting word: You may be interested to know that there is a Citizens Defending Libraries petition (Save New York City Libraries From Bloomberg Developer Destruction, now about 7,800 signatures- with which I am involved) objecting to how libraries are being sold and underfunded and New York’s library system shrunk because the system’s focus has become the creation of real estate deals for developers.

One of the stated reasons underlying the petition’s stance:
Libraries should not be hostages for development.  The city should cease the practices of bribing the public into approving bigger and denser development and pressuring communities into accepting libraries housed in smaller spaces with fewer services.

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