After a six week run in Hudson Square, the Architectural League’s exhibition The City We Imagined / The City We Made: New New York 2001-2010 opened this past weekend on Governors Island. In conjunction with this exhibit, the League has organized a series of “Conversations on New York” with some of the individuals who have made a considerable impact on the designing and building of New York in the past ten years. On June 17th, in the first of these public events, Rosalie Genevro and Michael Sorkin talked to Alexander Garvin, an urban designer who has played a major role in two of the most ambitious and discussed public planning initiatives of the decade, serving as managing director of the NYC2012 effort and as director of planning, design, and development for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. What follows is a brief recap of that discussion (a thorough summary by Norman Oder on how the discussion implicates Atlantic Yards can be found at the Atlantic Yards Report). Read it, and then be sure to check out the next Conversation on New York, this Thursday, July 8th: a rare chance to hear Dan Doctoroff, former Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, talk with Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for The New Yorker, about his tenure and the challenges facing the city looking forward from 2010.
In 1996, Doctoroff read Garvin’s The American City: What Works, What Doesn’t and subsequently approached him about the feasibility of New York hosting the summer Olympics. Garvin unequivocally agreed with its possibilities, and began seeking out all the city’s sizable and unused spaces for potential venues. He was only interested in vacant sites because, he joked, “I may be far to the right of Michael [Sorkin]… but I don’t believe in relocation.”
In the following excerpt, Garvin describes the back-story of meeting and working with Doctoroff to plan the infrastructural scheme for the NYC2012 Olympic bid. The plan, dubbed The Olympic X, emerged when Garvin placed a roll of trace paper over the map of proposed venues and connected them via the existing subway routes. Check out an excerpt from the story below:
New York, according to Garvin, is ready for a comprehensive rewrite of its massive zoning tome. For Garvin, the need for such a rewrite has just as much to do with financial feasibility as it does the physical edifice of the city, because current legal requirements make it too expensive for individuals and small businesses to build. Identifying himself as “pro-development”, Garvin’s position marks a distillation of public and private roles in the planning process. Nonetheless, his ideal zoning ordinance would focus on the public realm (streetscape, parks, transportation, infrastructure) rather than private property.
Ten years ago, Garvin might not have supported the zoning approach he now favors. Even during his Housing and Community Development work under the Lindsay administration in the 1970’s, Garvin helped develop floor-area bonuses for residential developers for planning in public resources. “It didn’t work,” said Garvin. Since their inception, bonuses have been used by City Planning to incentivize amenities considered beneficial to the general population, ranging from affordable housing to grocery stores providing fresh produce. If developer bonuses should not be included as incentive, Sorkin asked, “then how do you feel about the Inclusionary Housing Program?” Garvin replied that he simply does not favor bonuses. He feels that if we, as a city, want to provide subsidized housing, then we should subsidize housing. When he mentioned that a greater supply of residential units would bring down costs, Sorkin cited this year’s NYU Furman Center report (PDF) that revealed that recent rezoning efforts have effectively provided very little change to city-wide residential capacity.
Development bonuses have been the corrective to the imbalance of public/private power derived from the 1961 zoning ordinance, but Garvin was eager to share how his work at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation after 9/11 gave him new insight into this balancing act.
“It wasn’t until 9/11 that I realized how much power the state had,” Genevro commented. She cited a December 2002 plan by the city she favored because of its emphasis on transportation, the public realm, and removal of office space from the World Trade Center site and asked, “What happened to this plan?” Garvin reiterated that despite the plan’s inclusion of several policies he advocates, city agencies had no control over the site redevelopment, which was run by state agencies. Garvin reminded the audience and his interlocutors that the Port Authority always maintained control over redevelopment.. Because the Port Authority relied on the income from Silverstein Properties to make payments on its bonds, the authority believed it needed to replace the 10 million square feet of lost, rentable office space. He pointed out that Mayor Bloomberg has worked hard to reclaim control of some city agencies that were ceded to the state in previous administrations. Yet he noted that for Hudson Yards and Atlantic Yards, the Bloomberg administration chose to pass power to the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), a state agency, to circumvent ULURP, the land use procedures requiring community board reviews of such projects.
Nonetheless, he considers the amount of public participation to be one of the successes of his time at LMDC: “Lower Manhattan reflected that architecture mattered in New York City.” And he considers his greatest achievement from this period to be that Greenwich Street will continue through the WTC superblock to connect Tribeca and Lower Manhattan. Hear Garvin explain this episode in his own words in the excerpt below:
The conversation was stimulating, and invoked the complexity at the heart of New York’s built environment and any attempts to affect it. The City We Imagined/The City We Made: New New York 2001-2010 touches only the surface of this tangled history, and Garvin’s talk reminded the audience of the extent to which large plans, built and unbuilt, helped launch an era of massive change in the history of New York. Don’t miss Doctoroff and Goldberger in conversation this Thursday.
UPDATE: A podcast of the event is now available on the Architectural League’s website. Click here to watch the complete discussion between Garvin, Genevro and Sorkin.
Matthew Storrie is Associate Curator for The City We Imagined/The City We Made: New New York 2001-2010 and former Project Designer at WW. He is a student in the Princeton University Master of Architecture class of 2012 and has resided in Brooklyn for the last two years.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.