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Jarrett Murphy

Jarrett Murphy

Posted: August 18, 2009 02:23 PM

Bricks, Mortar, Bloomberg, Moses


According to the New York Post, Michael Bloomberg's comparing himself to "Power Broker" Robert Moses in a recent magazine interview is a case in which the billionaire mayor "toots his own horn."

But the tooting is accurate. When you add all that's been proposed, planned and built under this administration, it's hard to think of another figure since Moses who has presided over as significant an effort to reshape the physical city as Bloomberg has.

The comparison doesn't end there, however: It's also hard to ignore parallels between the public resistance that Moses generated and the substantial opposition that has emerged to protest Bloomberg's development policies.

"I think if you look we've done more in the last seven years than—I don't know if it's fair to say more than Moses did—but I hope history will show the things we did made a lot more sense," Bloomberg told the New Yorker's Ben McGrath.

Indeed, there will be plenty from which to judge Bloomberg's bricks and mortar legacy, be it projects the city directly pushed, or simply enabled, or merely acceded to. You can see some of it already: the new Yankees and Mets stadiums, the Gateway Mall in the Bronx, tens of thousands of units of affordable housing, the rezoning of a sixth of New York City—including areas like the Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront, where luxury high-rises have soared.

Other pieces of the picture will take shape in coming years, like Columbia University's West Harlem campus, the Willets Point redevelopment in Queens, Hudson Yards on Manhattan's west side and, of course, Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn. In assessing the Bloomberg record, you can even toss in the West Side Stadium, which the city abandoned, and the rebuilding of Ground Zero, where the city (at least in public) has played a low-key role.

It's interesting that Robert Moses' legacy underwent a re-examination—and in many ways a rehabilitation—during Bloomberg's second term. Moses certainly was a complex figure. He wanted to carve huge highways through the heart of New York and expand auto access through Washington Square Park, but he also built swimming pools and magnificent parks.

Partly in response to the largely admiring reconsideration of the master builder in three museum exhibits during 2007, the role of Moses' antithesis Jane Jacobs was explored anew with a Municipal Art Society exhibit in 2008. Her ideas also were more complicated than the popular snap-shot version of them.

One thing, however, is pretty clear: Moses and Jacobs had distinct ideas not just about the end product of urban development, but the means to that end. Moses favored top-down control. Jacobs argued for community voices. New York City's reaction to the excesses of the Moses era was to create a network of community boards and a system of land use review to give those neighborhood voices a role in deciding how the city should look.

During the Bloomberg era, the power of community boards has withered even as New York underwent physical transformation on a grand scale. Community boards and the land use process have frequently been circumvented or ignored.

The Bloomberg administration kept the West Side stadium, a huge project, out of the Uniform Land Use Review Process, or ULURP. City Hall also prevented community boards from having any meaningful say on Atlantic Yards—a development that might create the most densely populated residential block in the United States. The 16-acres of development at Ground Zero, because it's a state project, are also not subject to community board input. That wasn't Bloomberg's decision. But it was his call to try to slash the budgets of the 59 community boards this year.

City Hall was not alone in undermining the community board system. While he has called for empowering community boards, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer overrode Community Board 9's opposition to the Columbia expansion. After Brooklyn Community Board 6 (on a purely advisory vote) gave a thumbs-down to Atlantic Yards, BP Marty Markowitz purged offending members. Then-Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion took the same approach to community board members who defied him on Yankee Stadium.

Community Boards have their critics and their flaws, but they were an important outgrowth of the Moses era. One lesson from that period is that cities have to be careful in how far they go to accommodate the automobile—a caution that Bloomberg has internalized (see "pricing, congestion" and "Times Square, closure of"). But another lesson was that there have to be checks and balances on the people who seek to mold cities to their vision, even if they think their vision is temperate and wise.

In one sense, trampling over community boards isn't very different from paving over Washington Square Park. They both ride roughshod over something that was built for a reason.