Alexandra Lange | Essays

Who Are We Competing For?

The site of "Zoning the City," the McGraw Hill Building, with its notoriously terrible post-1961 Zoning Resolution privately-owned public space (Ezra Stoller/ESTO)

Yesterday I awoke to a stream of Twitter messages about the early Tuesday raid of Occupy Wall Street. Mayor Bloomberg was set to address the press about the raid at 8 a.m. Mayor Bloomberg had been scheduled to kick off the "Zoning the City" conference I planned to attend at 8:30 a.m. I decided there was no rush to get to midtown: there was no way he was going to make both.

And the mayor's non-presence, like the encampment's nonexistence, recast the day for me. (I was sitting next to Architect's Newspaper's Tom Stoelker, live-blogging before my eyes.) There were awkward jokes from former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff about how he and the mayor can't coordinate their remarks anymore, now that Doctoroff is out of the Bloomberg administration and an employee of Bloomberg L.P. British planning professor Matthew Carmona had a slide of an unpopulated Zuccotti Park in his PowerPoint with the parentheses "(before occupation)". New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger, in an unillustrated talk on the physical city, mentioned that we all know the definition of POPS now. But mostly it felt like the invited didn't want to go there. After all, it was partly a first-term Bloomberg reunion, as Rohit Aggarwala, lately of PlaNYC, now of C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, pointed out. It would have been impolite to insult the absent host.

And yet, I found myself increasingly aggravated, as the day wore on, by the repetition of keywords that have defined Mayor Bloomberg's economic development strategies. (But not, in many cases, the work of conference organizer Amanda Burden's Department of City Planning.)

Proposed Cornell/Technion engineering and applied science campus, Roosevelt Island

The first of these is competition. "We are in a competition every day," Doctoroff said, showing the skylines of other, newer, glassier cities, showing the Stanford and Cornell proposals for a new NYC enginnering campus, and trumpeting the numbers of hotel rooms added during the early 2000s. "This is not meant to dis the other proposals," he said, "I hope we can find a way to do them all." Kairos Shen, Chief Planner for the Cityof Boston, discussed the creation of "innovation zoning" and an "Innovation District" in his city, designed to keep "young, smart people" in his city. Thom Mayne, in some late-day remarks, pointed out that New York was a third-tier city in the context of China's highly-populated urbs. But in what context? I found myself relieved when Robert A.M. Stern, with whom I am rarely in agreement about contemporary matters, pointed out that while New York might be smaller, it was certainly a much nicer place to live. Couldn't and shouldn't we focus on that for a while, lest we return to the 1970s?

Back when I was writing stories about the Doctoroff era for New York, I remember asking, "Why the focus on Class A office space? Don't we need Class B and C too?" And I remember wondering, "Why spend all this money on out-of-towners? What about the people already here?" Their strategic focus was so lofty, so much on the top maybe 15 percent, on skyscrapers, on new convention centers, on new waterfronts, that it seemed to leave no room for what was happening on the ground.

I never got an answer then, and these questions only seem more pressing now. City Planning and Related Companies alum Vishaan Chakrabarti, now at Columbia, cited Jane Jacobs' chapter on the need for aged buildings (Class C office space) as the best incubators for new ideas and new businesses. Can we grow biotech leadership in a petri dish on Roosevelt Island? If the "young, smart people" can't see why to stay in New York without incentives, are they really so smart? Doesn't that put us in another no-win cycle, paying the young people, like the banks, not to abandon us for New Jersey? Shouldn't we start with better housing for New Yorkers, before we worry about the convention-goers?

What also struck me in several post-administration presentations was a lack of adaptability, an inability to understand alternate perspectives on appropriate goals. Early in the day, a man stood up and asked how zoning could help the owner of a 25x100 lot with some extra FAR. At first there was no response, but later, someone suggested that the smallholders could get together, and use a version of the High Line's cap-and-trade zoning to build a tall building on the avenue and off their street. Fine, but as the owner of a 25x75 foot lot (that's a brownstone), what I and my neighbors might much rather do is band together and trade our FAR for a park. Why must all moves be monetary, and upward? Indeed, what about the public life legendary planning consultant Alex Garvin kept vaunting?

Million Dollar Blocks (more here)

Even Rosanne Haggerty, president of Community Solutions, seemed to feel obligated to couch her work to find solutions for homelessness in economic terms. She offered three reasons we need to have a more equitable city, though the third one was, to my mind, the only one necessary: "It's the right thing to do." She then showed Laura Kurgan and Sarah Williams's Million Dollar Blocks project, which maps "places the concentration is so dense that states are spending in excess of a million dollars a year to incarcerate the residents of single city blocks." She asked, If cities and states can spend this much responding to social distress, taking 1.6 million people out of the economy, why can't they spend a fraction of that on early childhood education, better housing options, skills training, and so on?

After her presentation, anytime someone talked about keeping the young, smart, innovators in town, I thought "What if they are already here?" Or here just long enough to get frustrated, commit a crime, and get sent upstate? In response to a similar question from moderator Erroll Louis, Doctoroff said his  "virtuous cycle" of investment and economic opportunity was supposed to trickle down, eventually, to investments in the exisiting short, Class C city. Old people don't make as much money as new people. But what I heard Haggerty saying was, we don't need more money, we just need it spent differently.

And there wasn't enough differently at "Zoning the City". Or what was different felt contained. Here we will talk about San Francisco, where composting is mandatory and pets outnumber children. Here we will talk about Newark, where maintenance and improvement are priorities. Here we will talk about skills, schools, libraries. But at the end of the day, there we were with Mayne and Stern and REBNY's Mary Ann Tighe. For two of the three, their vision of the future was bigger, newer, faster. And that felt wrong yesterday, when it was so clear that so many felt left out of such planning.

Posted in: Business, Planning, Social Good

Comments [3]

Thank you- you could also ground this argument in history of cities. And yet it is a lesson city planners and civic leader seem to ignore in the competition to be most innovative- I suppose taking care of current residents seems so traditional, and yet- might we do it in an innovative manner? And quite frankly is NYC really competing with Chinese cities? for what?

There is an alliance of big business, finance, developers and Starchitects who scratch each others' backs to promote Class A glass towers everywhere Goldman Sachs wants to land its jets. They want new airports with private jet service, towers with giant floorplates and at least one hotel as good as a Four Seasons.

The same words you heard from Dan Doctoroff and Vishaan Chakrabarti (the most visible New York promoter of Hong Kong on Hudson), you can hear from others in London, Paris, Shanghai and Dubai. Chakabarti's old boss, Amanda Burden, articulated the argument very well at the (MAS?) conference not long ago in Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

After World War II, engineers went around the world telling cities that they would fall behind in the 20th century if they didn't build highways and modern arterials. Today it is bankers and developers who go to Paris and say if they don't modernize like New York and Hong Kong the 21st century will pass them by.

In London, where Lord Rogers convinced the Socialist Mayor Red Ken that London needed these towers, locals will point out to you that the Masters of the Universe never live or work in these towers themselves.
john massengale

BTW, in case there's any doubt, I agree with Alexandra Lange.

Do we agree on this? - No matter how many times Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry use the word "progressive," they are building for the 1%.
john massengale

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