Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ever wonder what NYC learned from the Robert Moses-era?

Gotham Gazette has a good run-down on the city's land-use process and the myriad controversies surrounding it: in short, it's byzantine, political, and highly contentious.

Errol Louis, Daily News columnist (and a former professor of mine at Wagner) convincingly makes the case that the complex process through which the city changes its face is the product of decades of political compromise intended to balance community interests, city-wide interests, and intelligent planning principles--in other words, to offset the vast powers that rested in the hands of Robert Moses for most of the 20th century.

The Gazette describes the issues raised by this process in the context of the changing face of NYC in the post-industrial Bloomberg years.
All of these changes represent the new New York, one that has shifted from industrial and manufacturing to finance and services. To accommodate that shift and the population growth that has occurred with it, the Bloomberg administration has rezoned one sixth of the total land in the five boroughs -- more than the last six administrations combined...

Such impressive numbers, though, conceal a growing unease in many parts of New York. Advocates in some neighborhoods fear the administration is fueling gentrification by giving developers a relatively free hand in working class neighborhoods, while simultaneously protecting more affluent areas from larger-scale development.

Many people in affected communities claim they haven't been a part of the process -- their voices are left out on the policy fringe, teetering on the edge of irrelevance. In response, some planners and politicians hope to boost the community's role in the land use process.
Three major blocs are represented in the land use process: 1) the community, via the Community Board; 2) the "people," via City Council; and 3) the Mayor, via the City Planning Commission. The first group represents the affected neighborhood, the latter two the broader interests of the city. But the process is anything but fluid, and some say anything but democratic. The CB's input is non-binding and reactive by design, and Council's role, Gotham Gazette argues, has largely been that of a rubber stamp.

"Right now, it's from the top down. The administration and the city planning determine the zoning,"the article quotes Councilmember Tony Avella, the city's most prominent community-oriented development advocate, saying. "I want it to be from the bottom up." (Of note: graffiti on Carlton and Dean near Atlantic Yards endorses Avella for mayor.)

But the article presents the important, often overlooked counterpoint to a heavily community-based planning process: "Most experts, including Been of the Furman Center, do not think communities should have veto power -- most agree the city would then have no waste transfer stations or other controversial necessities."

I waded into land use issues in my long Rockaways zoning article published in City Limits. There I found a common story: a community in desperate need of a careful, inclusive planning process felt themselves the object, rather than subject, of the forces changing the face of NYC.

1 comment:

Norman Oder said...

NYC also learned to punt projects it didn't want to go through the land use process to the more Moses-like Empire State Development Corporation, as with the Atlantic Yards project (which your teacher Errol Louis has supported vigorously, too often unmindful of facts).

For the record, the graffiti cited isn't "near Atlantic Yards" because there's no such place. It's a project, not a place, and, while preconstruction work has begun, construction has not.

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