Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Salins Resurrects Ghost of Robert Moses

In the latest issue of the City Journal, Peter Salins does his best zombie act-resurrecting the ghost of Robert Moses in the hope that new zoning rules will get local communities to back off and shut up; and he uses the current economic downturn as his beard: "City officials, while able to shape the form and character of the city’s districts when they establish the underlying zone specifications, must be willing to give up their power to design, actively or reactively, each significant development. Neighborhood residents and citywide advocates, while likewise playing a major role in agreeing to the initial rules, must be willing to give up their ability to block or modify individual proposals."

This is simply breathtaking in its disdain for citizen participation in a zoning process that all too often does very little to accommodate the concerns of neighborhood residents. We are taken back to the heyday of Robert Moses v. Jane Jacobs-a time when planners planned, doing whatever they thought was right, and the folks, well, the folks were unceremoniously relocated from their homes in order to promote the Greater Good (at least how it was conceived by Mr. Moses).

What we have here with Salins is basically an idee fixe-zoning restrictions are the key obstacle to achieving a better planned metropolis; and a major derivative of this belief, is that the common folks are too obstructive. But what Jane Jacobs demonstrated was exactly what Aristotle chided Plato about. As Aristotle said, the people may not know how to make shoes; but they know when the shoes pinch.

What Jacobs dramatized even more, however, was that-as far as urban planning went-the planners were simply wrongheaded; and her view of what constitutes a livable city became the conventional wisdom, debunking the so-called experts in the process. But now, in order to get things done, we need to simplify the rules, stream the process, and let the builders do what they do best.

A good example of this kind of perspective was the effort of Rudy Giuliani in the nineties to dramatically overhaul the zoning code and eliminate use restrictions: "Fourth-phase zoning should be organized around a limited number of broad use categories, and it should return to the traditional hierarchical practice. Something like this new zoning regime was proposed nine years ago, during the Giuliani administration, with the initiative led by Joseph Rose, then chairman of the City Planning Commission."

Well, we're not sure just what zoning effort he's referring to, but we do know that the Rose inspired effort to allow mega stores into manufacturing districts as-of-right, went down to ignominious defeat when the folks-with a bit of a nudge, it's true-rallied against the elimination of review for big box stores. Frankly, the idea of reducing citizen participation with an eye towards greater efficiency, is risible when we see all that the planners have wrought.

But Salins does make what we feel is one good point-a great deal of the Bloomberg zoning is going forward with no ability to actually fund the subsequent development: "Even as market-validated, unsubsidized projects like Thor’s and Fordham’s get derailed, city and state planning and economic-development agencies, deploying hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars and formidable land-acquisition powers, work mightily to get developers to build what and where they otherwise wouldn’t."

Which raises the question of whether the city should utilize its power of eminent domain in a climate of economic uncertainty (or, perhaps, in any climate): "In Willets Point, Queens, a dismal precinct of marginal factories and small industry, the city’s Economic Development Corporation is prepared to buy vast tracts of land and deploy tax subsidies to create an ambitious mixed-use commercial and residential district. Predictably, significant local opposition has arisen, mainly from the area’s small businesses. Until now, the city’s planners have shown far greater interest in the project than any developers have, making city government the community’s primary antagonist and putting the plan’s economic feasibility in serious doubt."

The spirit of Jane Jacobs needs to be preserved, it seems to us; though we don't believe that expertise is always an anathema. But an unchecked return to the principles of Moses needs to be avoided at all costs. A proper sense of balance is needed; something that has been absent in the Bloomberg administration. Without this balance, a slew of bad things have gone down-and zoning has played a relatively minor role in the mess making.

What the city needs is an executive with a true Jacobsian sense of neighborhood ecology. A leader with this quality can feel free to utilize planning expertise-remaining alive to the understanding that the folks are keenly aware of when the shoes are pinching.