Big Smoke

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Signature Works

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Allison Arieff, pundit of the Think Tank SPUR, lamented on the New York Times why we don’t build, in her words, “great urban design projects,” the foremost example of which she gives as the Golden Gate Bridge. To this end, she criticized America’s pattern of deferred maintenance and presented Atlanta’s BeltLine as a creative, visionary model we should aspire to.

I would like to know how Ms Arieff got published in the Times without actually defining what she means by great projects, explaining why there is a strong community-oriented NIMBYism against major projects, or even why major projects like the BeltLine deserve praise. In short, I would like to unpack the assumptions in her article.

What is a Great Project?

To me in the City of New York, home of many grand infrastructural projects, such is not only patently obvious but absolutely necessary to our continued existence. First and foremost among them is how we get our water. The aqueducts and water tunnels that feed New York City are perhaps our greatest urban design project to date and the largest such infrastructural complex of its type in the world, solving once and for all a necessity that has most of the West Coast in dire straits. It’s taken for granted in every home in the city and is lauded as the reason for our famous bagels and pizza.

High Bridge, Washington Heights

An infrastructural gem in an understated form

Furthermore, it’s not one we’ve ignored. We have added a third water tunnel under the tutelage of our last mayor, Michael Bloomberg, a project he sank billions of dollars into and is perhaps one of his most uncontroversial positive legacies and certainly one with the potential to be the most long-lasting. It perhaps isn’t sexy, but the benefits are clear as the water in our taps.

We have our bridges – including the George Washington Bridge, still to date the busiest car bridge in the world – and our subways, one of the most comprehensive systems in the world and still the most extensive by station count, and they indeed define us. However, they are also our limitation: We haven’t had a major addition to the subway since the Second World War, and our Hudson River crossings are truly what are limiting our growth as a city and as a region.

Why, then, is there pushback on Great Projects?

This, much to my dismay, is an aspect of the article I found sorely lacking in an article by someone who lives in San Francisco, and thus must have heard of the Freeway Revolts. How can a mention of the Golden Gate Bridge as part of the proactive force of visionary authorities not then mention the Embarcadero Freeway project to link it to the Bay Bridge?

A mention of NIMBYism is incomplete without mention of the force of Robert Moses – by far the single most powerful city planner in America – and of the community revolts under the auspices of writer Jane Jacobs. Moses, who racism and unprecedented unelected power was made infamous thanks to reporter and writer Robert Caro, had great plans in a unitary vision that have defined New York for generations to come, and it is nothing short of a miracle that he was not able to enact more of them. From the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge, a project that took the power of FDR to finally kill, to the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which elevated Jane Jacobs to fame and international regard as the face of its opposition, the Bushwick Expressway and more, “great” does not automatically confer “good.”

What he did build ensured the destruction of great swaths of the Bronx, the segregation of Long Island, the displacement of the poor and minorities, and major infrastructural hurdles for decades if not centuries to come. It is no wonder that the unitary authority of visionary planners isn’t more regarded.

Penn Station LIRR Delays

The legacy of Robert Moses

The issue of what should be built now has a significant community backlash, for better or for worse: In the fear of great ills – highways blasting through poorer neighborhoods, the very terms “urban renewal” and “housing project” being stigmatized as pejorative – almost all new projects are viewed with a jaundiced eye. The only things that seem to get past the Community Boards are projects that propose a lot of green space, which brings us to the BeltLine.

What projects should we be promoting?

It is no secret how the Second Avenue Subway line has become a running joke in New York politics as to how grand public works projects almost inevitably wind up as giant albatrosses without end in sight, but it wasn’t so long ago in America that a Great Project was built, and that was the Transbay Tube in San Francisco, the lynchpin of the BART system. Insufficient as it is – it’s not exactly a subway and it’s not exactly commuter rail – it’s been an important part in the development of the Bay Area since its opening in 1972, a reverse of the decision to turn the Bay Bridge into a highway-only bridge (similar to the opportunity lost to turn the lower level of the George Washington Bridge over to rail) and a boon for the whole region. Its continued expansion will allow needed growth and define the Bay Area for generations to come.

New York desperately needs subway extensions. New York desperately needs Hudson River crossings, especially since our current fare are reaching the end of their lifespan, but greenways seem to get the most attention and support. Governor Chris Christie, governor Andrew Cuomo and mayor Bill de Blasio all like to make plans for projects based on their political expediency – an airtrain that nobody wantsanother airtrain that goes nowhere and a streetcar that goes nowhere, respectively – and this can be viewed as a necessary reaction to the heightened cynicism of local citizens, but the major needs go unfulfilled for fear of stirring up the hornet’s nest.

Meanwhile, greenways such as the current High Line project or the proposed QueensWay project get green lights and easy funding, even if they contribute little to nothing towards the long-term prospects of the city or the region. They are indeed like the BeltLine in that they are parks built on railroad Rights-of-Way, which present a low-investment return on unused space at the cost of potential growth in the future. That, to me, is not a Great Project, but the tacit admission that no more great projects are feasible.

They are the opposite of visionary plans, and instead mark the craven chopping up of future generations for an easy fix today; a Boomer solution to what was ultimately a Boomer problem to begin with: Deferred maintenance and lack of investment in municipal infrastructure, something Ms Arieff complained about in the first place. If anything, what is needed is a new paradigm, and unfortunately, as with the fad of New Urbanism, if the current think tanks are any indication, one is not forthcoming.

 

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2 Responses to “Signature Works”


  1. bootsrapper
    on Apr 11th, 2016
    @ 3:57 pm

    detex is a fucking yupster: https://www.instagram.com/detex/


  2. Brett (disqus bem)
    on Oct 19th, 2016
    @ 1:15 pm

    I (bem) was banned from gothamist!

    Do you know how or why? Or more importantly how can I return?
    I miss you and Sobchak and Whale BlackHaywood and FUBoy et al.

    This is an interesting site too. Some good writing. Have you abandoned it?

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