Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-13: Washington Beech in the News & Reconsidering Jane Jacobs' Legacy

It's the last day of the month, a time when, by long-standing tradition, we here at RTUF survey the popular press and put our 2 cents out there about an interesting article or articles. Tonight, we have two:

1. Washington Beech ribbon-cutting makes the Globe. The completion of the first phase of the redevelopment of the former Washington Beech barracks-style public housing project into a contributing swath of the urban fabric, which I discussed in a post earlier this year (Blog Post No. 2010-9: Washington Beech is just the latest in a line...), was formally celebrated at a ribbon-cutting yesterday. It appears, according to the Boston Globe's Jennifer McKim ("Ailing Roslindale block gets a new life"), that, among many, Mayor Menino, Governor Patrick, and Sandra Henriquez, the former head of the Boston Housing Authority now turned Undersecretary at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, were in attendance and spoke. The article discusses not only the redevelopment itself, but also Ms. Henriquez's discussion of HUD's current legislative proposal to dramatically expand public housing authorities' flexibility in financing such projects by permitting mortgage financing.

2. Reconsidering Jane Jacobs' Legacy. Or at least a part of it. My father gave me a heads-up today about an article from yesterday's Wall Street Journal that does a decent job of identifying one clearly mixed blessing of Jacobs' influence on the structure of urban policy and public involvement in decision-making over the last half-century. Written by Andrew Manshel, identified as the executive vice president of the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation in Queens (NY), and titled "Enough with Jane Jacobs Already," the article's main focus is the City of New York's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, which sounds essentially like the kind of development project impact review and mitigation process that is required in many large cities (and even some smaller ones) around the country. Here in Boston, this kind of project review is enshrined in Article 80 of the Zoning Code.

Manshel is clearly no fan of this kind of process, viewing it as producing, at the end, a "valueless document...crafted mainly to foil any lawsuits by opponents of development claiming that the process fell short of legal requirements for completeness." He urges New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration to take a hard look at ULURP as it undertakes municipal charter reform because, in Manshel's words, "a better balance needs to be struck between considered judgment and citizen participation." As someone who has been there and been directly involved in what Manshel describes, I have to say that you'd be hard-pressed to find a thoughtful participant in the typical process who doesn't think it could use some improvement. Overall, the pendulum does seem to have swung too far in favor of those who oppose projects and want to stop development based on a narrow perception of what is in their and the public's interest. How to address that concern and promote better, more predictable, and more efficient decision-making is one of the great challenges of urban policy in the early 21st century. To the extent that Jacobs' success in promoting broad public involvement has now become calcified and an impediment to improving and thoughtfully expanding our built environment, it's a critique worth making. And if Manshel had stopped there, I wouldn't have all that much to disagree with.

But Manshel then takes the opportunity to take a few direct shots at Jacobs' overall influence on urban development and planning, based largely on what she said in her seminal work from the early 1960s: The Death and Life of Great American Cities. He perceives her ideas to be too influential and too unexamined among the professionals charged with administering our system, the developers at ULI and the architects and planners coming out of our academic institutions. In this context, it is worth remembering that Jacobs was smart, dynamic, and influential, but not a trained professional in urban planning or architecture. She started out as a journalist and was essentially a generalist in her approach to problems and her proposed solutions to them. And she was not kind in her writing to the academics and professional technicians of the time. There is accordingly an irony in having a book like Death and Life attaining such widespread influence in academic and professional circles. Manshel also sees it as misguided and limiting. Jacobs was often wrong, he says, and turning her every utterance about urban life into gospel is a mistake. Again, not a bad thing to remember and entirely consistent with one of my own pet sayings: "Everyone (and I do mean everyone) is a mixed bag."

Yet the examples that Manshel offers of her mistakes are not clear-cut and themselves reveal a disregard for inconvenient facts. Lincoln Center may be a success and not the failure that Jacobs predicted, but I'm not sure it's responsible for revitalizing the neighborhood around it. It came at great cost in terms of displacement and in my view it's largely the surrounding neighborhood's ability to feed vitality into the site that saved it. Lincoln Center on its own would be pretty lifeless. The West Village may now be fully gentrified and hardly resembling the mixed-income paradigm that Jacobs described from the late 1950s, but claiming that such gentrification falls directly out of "policies she advocated" that "blocked real-estate development" overstates the case as well. A city like New York may well have failed to build enough new housing to keep prices in check over the last half century in part because of NIMBYs empowered by the public involvement structure that Jacobs inspired. But as one of the article's commenters notes, gentrification in a place like the West Village is also about a specific lack of supply of great neighborhoods, not just housing in general.

And then comes Manshel's climactic declaration: We should all pay less attention to Jacobs' "overblown pronouncements and unprovable theories" and more attention to the work of William H. Whyte, which Manshel describes as "finely-grained thinking" about the design of public spaces. Like another commenter to the story, I've never thought of Jacobs and Whyte as being opposed to each other or somehow mutually exclusive in their approach to what makes a successful and satisfying urban place. Overall, then, I'm a bit at a loss as to why Jacobs has to be denigrated as a crackpot and Whyte held up as the shining example of right thinking in order to make a valid point about reforming the development project review and public involvement process. This kind of gratuitous critique, not at all necessary to further Manshel's point, makes me wonder about motivation and context and broader implications. The debate over urban development is clearly still a live one. Recently, we've seen an attempt to rehabilitate Robert Moses 30+ years after The Power Broker. In my opinion, Alan Ehrenhalt's 2007 piece in Governing ("The Power Broker Reconsidered") was a thoughtful consideration of that boomlet. It now appears that one of his chief late-career opponents is being targeted. Wherever this is headed, we can only hope it isn't intended to put us back into the days of condemning and clearing entire neighborhoods, punching interstate highways through our urban cores, and building towers in lifeless parks.


  1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    I wasn't attempting to set up Jacobs and Whyte as adversaries. Holly was Jacob's editor at Fortune and encouraged and supported her work. I also don't mean to say that Jacob's work is without value -- of course it is essential. But I do think we've lost sight of some of the limitations of her analysis and have overlooked the care and thoughtfulness of Holly's work. What I admire about Whyte, and about PPS (of which I am an officer and board member) is that they are about improving public spaces through community engagement, leadership, close observation and knowledge about what works.

  2. Well, your comments were quite thoughtful and Andrew's (I, too, am on the board of PPS and a fan of Whyte's) are riddled with factual errors.
    Jacobs did not predict Lincoln Center would fail. She criticized the mallification of culture replacing wide swaths of city fabric instead of individual theaters anchoring neighborhoods separately (Carnegie Hall, Joyce Theater, The Public, etc). She said culture malling was anti-city development.
    Jane did not cite the Village as "the ideal of city living" and she did not "prescribe" all neighborhoods to be Greenwich Village clones. The Village was her laboratory for observing and understanding city life, just like Seagram's Plaza and Bryant Park were observation posts for Holly.
    The ULURP process today is a joke, not a result of too much Jacobs. All big, Moses-like developments sidestep the whole process altogether by going through the Empire State Development Zone, i.e. Atlantic Yards, Columbia.
    Jacobs and Whyte are totally in sync when it comes to fine-grained thinking and they are brilliant at what they do BECAUSE they are not trained planners (nor is Fred Kent) but keen observers of what makes cities work and don't work.
    True, developer, architects, planners all cite Jacobs' work but then they do exactly the opposite of what she observed to be organic.
    Jacobs did not object to "large-scale planning" when it came to transit , park systems, water systems and quality of life infrastructure that reinforced city frabric but didn't replace it.
    But the worst error is that "the cutting-edge wisdom of the time was to increase urban density by building taller and creating more open space--clearing slums and speeding transportation..." Towers in the parks for low or middle income decreased density everywhere. Moses was for less density, she was for more. He thought bulldozing would eliminate problems, built towers surrounded by grass with less density than the mixed scale blocks they replaced. He tore down more units than he built. Taller does not mean denser.
    For another view of what REALLY reignited the upper west side (not Lincoln Center), read my book.
    Ironic that no one seemed to get too much of the 3 huge exhibits and endless press coverage rehabilitating Robert Moses 3 years ago, but there is sure plenty of "we've had enough of Jacobs" attitude to go around.
    For a clearer understanding of how the clashing vision of Moses and Jacobs shaped NYC, read my new book THE BATTLE FOR GOTHAM: NEW YORK IN THE SHADOW OF ROBERT MOSES AND JANE JACOBS.

  3. Understanding Andrew's intent a bit better, I agree with him that the biggest downside to Jacobs' legacy is the current public approval process and the virtually unlimited ability of NIMBYs and BANANAs to wreak havoc on even the most thoughtful proposal. The details may change from place to place and state to state. But the essential nature of the approval process does not. Over the winter, I put the question to Anthony Flint, who recently wrote "Wrestling with Moses" about the decade-long series of battles between Moses and Jacobs over Washington Square Park, urban renewal in the West Village, and the LOMEX, something like this: How do you think Jacobs would view the NIMBYs and BANANAs that an overreliance on public involvement, appeals through the courts, and distrust of government have engendered? My recollection is that he said Jacobs would probably view it with mixed emotions. That sounds about right to me: the process today very often kills or significantly delays the good projects along with the bad.

    Of course, how to change the process to maintain validity while increasing predictability and efficiency is the difficult task. One path to a better balance seems to be reinvigorating master planning at all scales (small area, neighobrhood, municipality, region) so that major decisions about growth and community goals and vision are made up front. Those plans can then be used as the basis to create new land use regulations (hopefully form-based) that have as much discretion removed from them as possible. The idea is to avoid constantly revisiting the issues that bother a community every time a development proposal comes through the process.