A New Growth War
May 24, 2004
By Julia Vitullo-Martin
'DEVELOP - Don't Destroy" is the name and rallying cry for the neighborhood group opposing Bruce Ratner's plans to build an arena for the Nets, plus 4,500 housing units and several office towers, in Brooklyn. For New York City, this is revolutionary: The group presumes that development is actually good.
That reflects a barely noticed, emerging consensus that the city as a whole needs a strong tax base to survive -and that neighborhoods must stay dynamic, welcoming new residents and adapting old buildings to new uses. "We feel positive about development," says D-DD organizer Dan Michaelson. "We don't have a nostalgic idea about Brooklyn, and we don't think it should stagnate. Development has been doing a great job out here."
For much of the last century, neighborhood disputes were inevitably pro- versus anti-development. "Not in my backyard" - NIMBY - meant no development, no matter how lovely or needed. Now the fight tends to center on one kind of development versus another - which can make the issues very complex.
Consider the Ratner fight. At the contentious May 6 City Council hearings, arena supporters wore buttons saying, "Jobs, Housing, Hoops." Opponents carried signs reading "Housing - Yes, Arena - No." In other words, we like one kind of development for our neighborhood (housing) - but not that other kind (a sports arena).
Both sides reflect the grass-roots recognition that neighborhoods must evolve.
As Jane Jacobs, that great lover of old neighborhoods, pointed out repeatedly, aged neighborhoods and aged buildings are good - so long as new buildings, new residents, and new jobs are being constantly added. The only harm of old buildings, she once wrote, "lies in everything being old and everything becoming worn out."
Declining old neighborhoods - like '70s downtown Brooklyn - don't fail because they're old. Rather, says Jacobs, they look and feel old because they failed. For some reason, their people and their enterprises couldn't support new construction and new investment. When people or enterprises in the neighborhood did succeed well enough to be able to support new building or rehabilitation, they instead left the moment they could afford to.
In a neighborhood that's grown become so "infertile economically," in Jacobs's deft phrase, enterprises that elsewhere go on to succeed, never made enough money in the infertile neighborhood to survive.
New Yorkers are beginning to understand this concept of economic infertility - and no neighborhood wants it in their backyard. It's a new, beneficent form of NIMBY: "No economic infertility in my backyard."
That's a welcome reversal on the last century's no-development theme. As Brooklyn Brewery owner Steve Hindy has long warned his community board in Williamsburg: "We have to learn to support rather than impede. Thirty years of saying no to housing development on the waterfront brought us the proposal for a garbage-transfer station, which we were very lucky to beat. People here have to realize we're going to have to say yes to something."
It's going on all over town: New Yorkers are saying yes to something - even if they're often saying no to huge, centrally planned projects.
Consider Forest City Ratner's plan to acquire (with the help of government subsidies and tax-exempt financing) 11 acres from the MTA and Long Island Rail Road - and another 13 acres of private property via state condemnation.
Among the valuable buildings Ratner would condemn is the beautifully restored Spaulding Building, which was converted from industrial use to condominiums over the last two years. DD-D's Dan Michaelson lives there. "It would be insane," argues he "for the government to take successful, brand-new developments that are full of life and demolish them for another new development."
Graphic designer Daniel Goldstein, whose apartment will be taken by Ratner under eminent domain if the project goes forward, says, "Develop - Don't Destroy wants the neighborhood - the Atlantic Yards - developed. But we question why one developer should be given free rein to create his own zoning, instead of opening up the yards to bidding from all developers."
Well, both the Bloomberg and Pataki administrations are particularly enamored of big, government-sponsored, highly subsidized projects - the 21st-century equivalent of old-fashioned urban renewal. They like these projects to steam forward without the review required of all private development. The bypass - usually via what's called a zoning override - has the counter-productive effect of enraging neighborhoods.
Zoning lawyer Howard Goldman points out that the public-review process, which is limited to seven months and therefore predictable, is an efficient means of giving New Yorkers a legitimate forum for expressing their views - "the closest thing New York has to a town hall meeting."
Without public review, who mediates disputes? And who is to say who is and who is not a legitimate community spokesperson?
Such questions will grow even more pressing as the Bloomberg administration moves aggressively (and correctly) to change the archaic zoning that has held many neighborhoods in a hammer-lock for decades.
Zoned for industrial uses that are no longer economic, hundreds of miles of waterfront from Staten Island through The Bronx lie fallow - even as the rest of us talk about a housing crisis. Inland, huge chunks of every borough are vacant or underused - many left over from the ravages of urban renewal and other misplaced government policies. Some of these decrepit chunks border lively, immensely valuable neighborhoods. Think Bushwick in Brooklyn, or West Harlem in Manhattan.
Rezoning debates are already getting ugly. Take booming Williamsburg: Hasidic leaders, who have long jousted with Hispanic groups over low-income housing developments, recently announced they wanted no more Yuppies - the other group that's been reviving the neighborhood. The entrepreneurial Hasidim, who have opened many shops and rebuilt thousands of row houses, are offended by the youngsters' bars and clubs, hip restaurants and frivolous shops.
Just down the waterfront in Red Hook, the "Coalition to Revitalize Our Waterfront Now," which espouses mixed-use new development, is tangling with representatives of public-housing residents, who believe that a proposed Ikea store has guaranteed them 500-600 jobs.
Because public-housing residents make up 60 percent of Red Hook's population - government condemnation drove out thousands of homeowners over the years - they argue they should speak for Red Hook's future. Their spokeswoman, Maria Gonzales, told New York 1 that residents weren't interested in the "low-level" jobs she thinks a mixed-use development would provide. Service jobs won't do: "We want high-paying jobs with tuition reimbursement and full benefits," she said.
It's progress of sorts that leaders like Gonzales are demanding jobs - far better than the old position of lobbying for higher welfare benefits. But is government-sponsored development the best answer to the evaporation of manufacturing jobs? New Yorkers are being called on to provide Ikea with 20 years of tax exemptions through the Empire State Zone, and Ratner with tax-exempt financing, state condemnation of private property and subsidies of something under $1 billion.
What's to be done?
For starters, let's have one public-review process for all development - including politically favored projects. If it's good for the private goose, it's certainly good for the highly subsidized gander.
Neighborhoods all over the city are flourishing, thanks to homeowners, shopkeepers, restaurateurs, and investors all following their own individual visions. Let's not replace that private exuberance with centrally planned boondoggles. Let's NIMBY boondoggles along with economic infertility.
Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and director of its Center for Rethinking Development. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
©2004 New York Post
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