Recap | Arrested Development

If economic troubles haven’t already prompted us to reassess current development trends, a panel that assembled November 7 at Cooper Union’s Great Hall certainly could. That’s the hope, at least, for Olympia Kazi, Executive Director of the Institute for Urban Design and organizer of the symposium, Arrested Development. The goal for the daylong event was ambitious: exhort a panel of academics, architects, developers, economists, and politicians to explore what roles megaprojects have in future developments across a range of international contexts. As New York currently processes the most extensive rezoning and development changes since the early 1960’s, this discussion comes at an opportune time for our city.

In her introduction, Kazi set the tone by declaring that megaprojects are here regardless of what one thinks about them. She challenged the participants to analyze the models we are currently using and to identify where these models might overlap with broader social goals. Most of the 17 participants shared her sentiments, but each offered a nuanced perspective on why and under which circumstances this overlap should be taken as a given.

Session 1: Megaprojects in the Suburbs

Lawrence Levy, Executive Director, National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University
David Manfredi, Principal, Elkus Manfredi Architects
Myron Orfield, Professor of Law; Executive Director, Institute on Race & Poverty at University of Minnesota
ModeratorJune Williamson, Associate Professor, Spitzer School of Architecture, The City College of New York / CUNY

The morning segment focused heavily on the demographic changes in the suburbs. The panelists insisted that, without suburban diversity planning, cities force an innate long-term discrimination on poorer communities and exacerbate the suburban fragmentation along our city edges. Urban dwellers may not realize it, but this affects them, too. According to Levy, the additional tax revenues, lifestyle diversity, and cooperative planning methods all add up to a net-positive, and afford us greater cooperation in regional transportation planning.

The group also identified several towns that have tested new these planning strategies to plan for a changing population. In Levy’s opinion, development since the 1950’s has cultivated a certain “paranoia and parochialism“ about the changing immigrant demographic. The challenge is to realize that new immigrants arrive with more than a “dream and a down-payment,” and the communities that plan for the inevitable densification of the suburbs by new citizens will survive.

Possibly the most salient comment of this session came from Orfield, who made clear that our recession economy may have a silver lining in the form of a restructured national transportation planning policy. Federal stimulus funds, if conditioned correctly, would pull Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) out of city and county jurisdictions and incentivize regional planning cooperation. The 1980’s marked the decline of regional planning efforts due to government decentralization and a moment like this is a breath of fresh air to those waiting for regional planning cooperation.

Session 2: Megaprojects as New Towns

Chris Corr, Regional Chair, Planning, Design and Development, AECOM, Florida
Tom Jost, Director of Urban Planning, ARUP, New York
Emily Talen, Professor, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, School of Sustainability, Arizona State University
James von Klemperer, Principal, Kohn Pedersen Fox Architects
ModeratorRobert Fishman, Professor, School of Architecture and Planning, University of Michigan

Drawing from historical utopian models, Fishman introduced the second panel by stating that the concept of ‘mega’ for a project of this nature comes not from a large scale, but from the enormous efforts necessary to establish a consistent community vision in the planning of new cities.

The panelists, some of whom were responsible for model New Urbanism communities and Asian boomtowns, were certainly drawing ire from session three panelists arriving in the audience. For the moment, however, they were free to discuss their development partnerships. Offering the sessions only detraction, Talen identified the key criticisms against heavy-handed development (monolithic visions, ersatz communities, incomplete lifestyles, no diversity, etc.) offering a natural transition into the final session.

Session 3: Megaprojects in the Metropolis
KeynoteScott Stringer, Manhattan Borough President

Vishaan Chakrabarti, Marc Holliday Professor of Real Estate Development; Director, Real Estate Development Program, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation, Columbia University
Susan Fainstein, Professor, Department of Urban Planning and Design, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University
Jeff Madrick, Senior Fellow, Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, The New School
Thom Mayne, Founder, Morphosis Architects
ModeratorPeter Grant, The Wall Street Journal

For what was certain to contain the day’s most hot-button issues, session three started with a chord of optimism. Scott Stringer, Manhattan Borough President, reminded everyone that New York City’s finest projects have been built in times of financial restraint. Federal and state stimulus funds intended for infrastructure and regional planning have been intercepted by other programs, but with a cooperative vision and prioritization, New York can achieve a multiplier effect in its future megaproject plans. The premature groundbreakings of the 2nd Avenue Subway line, Moynihan Station and Javits Center Expansion, he said, were a result of those concerned with leaving a political legacy rather than a successful urban intervention. The recent success of the High Line, on the other hand, is the result of a concerted devotion to quality of life standards.

Peter Grant, of the Wall Street Journal’s Real Estate group, echoed Stringer’s optimism. While federal tax credits have slowed the downward economic spiral, the housing crisis has not been abated and we have the breathing room to reassess our other eminent problems. With a looming environmental crisis and failing infrastructure, we could afford some time to establish a clear direction for when capital flow resumes.

The concern of Susan Fainstein, Professor of Planning at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, however, is the source of the funding. She pointed out that the successful megaprojects in New York (such as the 7 line Subway Extension and Hunt’s Point Greenway), London, and Amsterdam have been paid for by public funds, and the majority of failed megaprojects has been funded by the private sector. For those projects that were heavily subsidized, she questions the cost/benefit ratios. If developers are willing to pay for megaprojects despite their intensely speculative nature and lag-time, Fainstein remarked that the public should understand that they carry the brunt of risk and punishment.

Mayne dismissed Fainstein’s acceptance of successful bold public visions as reductive. Instead, Mayne advocated a massive reconfiguration of visualization and organization strategies that will continue to make urban interventions successful. Citing computing and visualization technologies employed by his architectural office, Morphosis Architects, Mayne declared that we’ve moved beyond the problems of Modernism and its universal aspirations. Instead, macro planning and dealing with “economic aggregates” are issues best handled by a hybrid designer/planner perspective, a strategy Morphosis used when planning for New York’s Olympic Village proposal.

Vishaan Chakrabarti’s presentation, however, revisited Modernist social change ambitions as he criticized the gluttonous way Americans use land. He views hyperdense planning strategies as the primary way to solve our complex economic and environmental problems, and he cautioned that our current Federal Stimulus distribution could put our nation at a disadvantage decades from now. A growing economy like China’s is spending a high percentage of its $585 billion federal stimulus funds on public transportation and infrastructure, but America remains devoted to the automobile and regional domestic flights. If federal funds subsidized all transportation equally, the general population would see that auto-centric development is much more expensive to maintain. Instead, Chakrabarti would like to see Moynihan Station do for rail transportation and density on the West side of Manhattan what Grand Central did for the East. (check out Vishaan’s perspectives on the stimulus and Grand Central Terminal shared right here on the Omnibus. – ed.)

Wrapping up the presentations, Jeff Madrick explained that he just wants to see some optimism. In his words, our nation came to believe we were poor sometime in the 1970s and 1980s and we stopped investing in public infrastructure. Projects funded by the New Deal were pragmatic forces in keeping our nation employed and optimistic even through World War II reconstruction. According to Madrick, our economy needs a comparable program to build confidence.

Discussion for the day was heated, many questions were asked, and the panels represented a good cross section of perspectives. While the discussion may not have determined a singular role for future megaprojects, (in fact, final Q&A seemed to hit an insurmountable impasse) the Institute for Urban Design’s attempts to assemble and present a diversity of opinions sent a clear signal about the complexity of the issue.

Matthew Storrie is the Exhibitions Intern at the Architectural League of New York and former Project Designer at WW Architecture. He enjoys the views from his rooftop in Brooklyn.