City Lit: Wholly Moses

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In February, when urban planner and veteran City Hall insider Alexander Garvin was tapped to oversee the rebuilding of lower Manhattan, all the local papers hit the same historical note. “Not since Robert Moses imposed his single-minded mark on the region decades ago,” the Daily News wrote, “has an individual been asked to lead the re-creation of such a crucial swath of real estate.”

Ah, the ghost of New York’s “master builder.” There’s no purging him, is there? Even as clean-up workers were still unearthing human remains from Ground Zero, pressure was building on Garvin to hurry up and deliver a master reconstruction plan in a New York minute-long-term consequences be damned.

This month, just as Garvin plunges forward with a design that will remake Manhattan on a Moses-like scale, McGraw-Hill is reissuing a newly updated version of his critically acclaimed 1995 book, The American City: What Works, What Doesn’t. If Garvin’s blueprint for a revitalized downtown reflects the urban philosophy he’s sketched out in his book, New Yorkers need not fret the second coming of Robert Moses.

Garvin’s credo is straightforward: “Only when a project also has beneficial impact on the surrounding community can it be considered successful planning.” For him, there is no singular, shining model of urban planning that can be carbon-copied; a particular region, city, or neighborhood has its own distinct features and assets that need to be capitalized on by a given project.

Encyclopedic in scale, The American City is a sweeping survey of more than 250 urban and suburban revitalization projects in America. To fine-tune his recipe for a successful formula, Garvin casts his eye over the last hundred years. He cites Chicago’s creation of a lakeshore network of parks in the early 1900s-which spurred a residential housing boom-as one successful example. Historic preservation, as it was pioneered by Charleston and New Orleans in the mid-20th century, is another kind.

Portland’s recent rebirth also embodies, to Garvin, another successful model-and on a much larger and fuller scale. After the city invested in a riverfront park, mass transit (a light-rail system), and walkable streets, the business community responded in kind, resulting in a boomlet of retail stores, office buildings, hotels, and apartment houses.

“Thus,” Garvin concludes, “urban planning should be defined as public action that will produce a sustained and widespread private market reaction.” In particular, he indicts Moses’ brand of redevelopment as producing the opposite effect, because many of his colossal structures-such as the recently razed New York Coliseum and the superblock housing projects-resulted in a form of de facto segregation, in which residents in the area were effectively cut off from their neighbors. “This separation,” Garvin writes, prevents any redevelopment benefits from “spilling over into surrounding neighborhoods and thus stimulating further private activity.”

A well-respected professor of planning and architecture at Yale University, Garvin’s ethos is part Frederick Law Olmsted, part Jane Jacobs: he’s passionate about parks and open space but he’s also an ardent proponent of mixed-use, pedestrian oriented neighborhoods. The dapper academic, who favors bowties, is also no ivory-tower theorist; he’s been a member of the New York City Planning Commission for the last seven years, and from 1970 to 1980, he served in city government as deputy commissioner of housing and director of comprehensive planning. Perhaps most importantly, nothing in Garvin’s book or career suggests he is about to turn into a 21st century public works despot, ˆ la Moses.

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Of course, the robert moses saga, like most horror stories, also started out innocently enough. To recall how Moses morphed from earnest idealist into malevolent, otherworldly tyrant is enough to make even the most fervent Rudy Giuliani fans shudder.

In 1924, Moses was appointed by Governor Al Smith to head the newly created Long Island State Park Commission. Back then, Moses was mostly consumed with the lofty task of creating public beaches and parks for the city’s masses, which he would quickly and grandly accomplish. (His crown jewel, Jones Beach, was the envy of America when it opened in 1929.)

From this unassuming perch, however, a full-borne monster sprang, an unstoppable Pac Man-like technocrat who steamrolled anyone that got in his path. Over the next 44 years, Moses schemed and blackmailed his way to heading up as many as 14 different city and state posts (sometimes all at once). In the process, he built an empire of public works that would shape the physical face and social destiny of New York City for generations, if not centuries.

During much of his reign, which lasted until 1968, Moses built, among many other things, 12 bridges, 35 highways, 75 state parks, 658 playgrounds, Lincoln Center, Shea Stadium and the United Nations building. But to do it, he subverted democratic processes, slandered his opponents, conned the media, bullied mayors and governors, demolished stable city neighborhoods, and displaced 500,000 mostly minority residents. Through it all, Moses was fond of saying: “If the ends don’t justify the means, what does?”

No less severe a critic than urbanist Lewis Mumford once grudgingly remarked: “In the twentieth century, the influence of Robert Moses on the cities of America was greater than that of any other person.” Indeed, nobody was more responsible for choking the life out of cities than Moses with his relentless highway construction, which planners across the country eagerly emulated in the mid-20th century. (Ironically, Moses didn’t know how to drive and was chauffeured everywhere.) Some of the 13 expressways he rammed through New York City-such as the Cross-Bronx-destroyed vibrant neighborhoods.

In 1974, Robert Caro’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, a groundbreaking mix of biography, history and investigative journalism, unmasked Moses as a

corrupt, cold-hearted, malicious megalomaniac. Caro’s penetrating study of unchecked power has since become required reading in political science and planning courses at hundreds of colleges.

Still, amazingly enough, nostalgia for Moses began emerging soon after his death in 1981, at the age of 92. By the late 1980s, developers and politicians were growing frustrated by new land-use and environmental controls designed expressly to forestall the kind of unilateral, all-encompassing projects that were Moses’ trademark.

Today, that same impatience is growing with Garvin’s “committee” approach to downtown’s future design, which, in un-Moses-like fashion, has allowed a variety of interest groups a voice in the redevelopment process. It seems that the deliberate and cautious planning pace has some people pining for another strongman to take charge, who could, as Moses used to boast of himself, “get things done.”

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Interestingly, after garvin was named lead planner of the World Trade Center redevelopment, the local media, for all their bullish comparisons to Moses, failed to pick up on the more subtle parallels between the two men. It was Moses’ cunning concentration of power that made him into a public works overlord: As the long-running head of many city and state agencies, including the money-making public authorities, he essentially pulled all the political levers.

Nobody accuses Garvin of looking to make a similar power grab. But it is worth noting that in addition to his new all-important post and regular gig as a planning Commissioner, he has served since 1995 as the planning director for a politically well-connected organization seeking to bring the Olympics to New York in 2012. (The group is led by Daniel Doctoroff, who is now the deputy mayor for economic development.) Several years ago, Garvin also was the brains behind Mayor Giuliani’s dream for a West Side stadium, which is the cornerstone of the Olympic push.

But if anyone could be the second coming of Moses, Larry Silverstein, who owns the World Trade Center lease, is the man to watch.

Most everyone involved in the rebuilding effort, including Garvin, envisions a more mixed-use future for lower Manhattan-meaning a restored and varied business district, an augmented residential and cultural district, a fitting memorial, and a vastly improved transportation hub. But Silverstein is anxious to recoup much of the 13.5 million feet of commercial space lost in the terrorist attacks, despite an increasing glut of vacant office space in the city.

Never mind that no overarching, long-term plan for downtown is yet agreed on; Silverstein has resolutely plowed ahead with his own plans for a new set of buildings, one of which he hopes to be breaking ground on this summer. In doing this, he has taken a page out of Moses’ playbook; Moses regularly began construction on projects while they were still under review by government committees. Even legal injunctions meant nothing to him; he’d just send the bulldozers in during the night, saying, “Once you sink that first stake, they’ll never make you pull it up.” And he was nearly always right.

Keith Kloor is a senior editor at Audubon magazine.