New York Needs a New Moses

Those who can, build,” master builder Robert Moses once said. “Those who can’t, criticize.” By that measure, the 9/11 terrorists were the biggest critics New York has ever encountered.

Every act of destruction, though, leaves behind a germ of renewal. New Orleans will eventually have a chance to re-envision itself as America’s first twenty-first century city. In much the same fashion, the destruction of the Trade Center offered New York a chance to re-imagine an already fading Lower Manhattan and, by extension, the city as a whole.

Four years after the towers fell, though, the footprints are still just that: reminders of what once was, not the foundation of anything new. World War II was won in less time. Over that same period, a staggering number of development plans have been pursued and, for the most part, abandoned. The Second Avenue subway has been a pipe dream for nearly a decade. The Cross-Harbor Tunnel that would take millions of gas-guzzling trucks off of the city’s roads fell victim to election-year politics, as Bloomberg withdrew his support for the plan, which had already languished for 80 years. Brooklyn’s ports and piers have been neglected almost as long. The Hudson River Park may be lovely, but it represents a missed economic opportunity in a city that hasn’t had a significant new economic sector in 60 years. The paired Jets Stadium and Olympics bid went nowhere; nor did plans to connect Grand Central’s Metro North trains and Atlantic Avenue’s Long Island Railroad trains to lower Manhattan. A quarter century after the West Side Highway collapsed, its still been only partially reconstructed. (The city bizarrely turned down ample federal funding, which then wound up in Boston.) Control over New York’s trains remains in the hands of the politically insulated bureaucrats of the MTA. The city’s airports are at the mercy of the famously self-serving Port Authority, whose dirt-cheap leases Bloomberg just renewed for another 45 years.

And we still don’t have public toilets (excluding, of course, city streets), despite a French company’s proposal to build them for free—even though everyone wants either Freedom bidets or the chance to shit on something French.

Some of these failed proposals were good ideas; others were not. But none was considered in terms of the city as a whole, or in terms of other possible projects.

The destruction of 9/11 placed the city’s already aging and inadequate infrastructure back on center stage for the first time since the fall of Robert Moses 35 years ago. Here was our chance to again plan for the whole city, not merely consider whatever groups yell the loudest.

It’s time for a new Robert Moses (circa 1940): someone who can see the separate development proposals as anything but separate, since they are, in fact, part of the economic web that weaves Ground Zero to Great Neck, East New York to the East Side.

Before Moses, New York State had a modest park system; when he left, the state had 2,567,256 acres. Over nearly 45 years he built 658 playgrounds in New York City, 416 miles of parkways and 13 bridges.

Since then, we’ve built almost nothing.

What is it about New York’s interest group politics and feuding governments that gave rise to a Moses in the first place? And why hasn’t the city built so little since his fall?

Part of the problem was Moses himself. He was a nasty son-of-a-bitch, perfectly happy to screw the little guy who stood in the way of his grand projects. Eventually, Moses, who at one point held twelve city and state jobs (but never held elected office and was crushed in how one run for governor), came to believe his own massive hype. The powerbroker was more than willing to displace ordinary people who got in the way of his public works projects. “If the ends don’t justify the means,” he asked, “what does?”

It’s a good question, especially in a city like ours, where little gets built and no one—certainly not the mayor or his Democratic rivals—has offered a city-sized vision.

Bloomberg’s response to 9/11 was telling. Instead of working to rebuild Downtown, which would have placed him in Giuliani’s shadow, he went along with Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff, a fellow nasal Bostonian, who’d been trying to bring the Olympics to New York for years. The Observer once called his team “a hundred-headed Robert Moses… frustrated by decades of political paralysis and determined to resuscitate the long-vanished art of getting things built on a grand scale with brute political force.”

But this proved optimistic, as Doctoroff and company were shived by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who wasn’t going to let a stadium go up on the Far West Side before anything went up at Ground Zero, which is in his district. Doctoroff also placed his fate in the hands of the uber-bureaucrats of the IOC— something Moses never would have done—who rejected the city’s bid, quite possibly because of Silver’s rejection of the stadium plan.

It was during the fight to win support for that stadium that the NYPD’s concerns over the design of the Freedom Tower were overlooked by City Hall. Their eyes were watching the West Side. Nobody was looking at the overall picture.

How will the new stadium in Queens affect Bruce Ratner’s plans to build a stadium in Brooklyn for the Nets basketball team? Will there still be a need to expand the Javitz Center? Can anyone at City Hall answer these questions?

In many ways, things are still as they were when Moses dominated the scene. Bond financing by semi-public entities still remove many decisions from the vagaries—and the accountability—of politics. Federal funding and its accompanying mandates still shape most projects. Americans still love their cars.

In a deeply politicized city where few vote, neighborhood and other interest groups have little power to build, but much to criticize and veto. The Universal Land Review Process (better know as the Ulurp), mandates a half year of review and three public hearings before anything much can be built, which prevents experts, hacks or politicians from doing much of anything very quickly, and forces them to pay at least lip service to public participation. Many of these changes were a direct response to Moses’ later excesses.

It’s barely remembered now that Moses rose to power as a something of a reformer, with the help of his counter-machine of contractors, suppliers and anti-Tammany activists. Unlike the present reformers, he spent his time building, not merely criticizing.

I’m a Jane Jacobs-sort myself: I want cohesive neighborhoods, not super highways through the Village. But we can’t continue to go forward in the same haphazard, half-assed fashion. Given the mayoral candidates, there seems to me no alternative—we need a new master planner. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another terror strike—or a slow decent into fiscal and structural insolvency—to get us there.


from New York Press 

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