Released only 21 months ago, A Region at Risk, the Regional Plan Association’s ambitious blueprint for the tri-state area’s future, might appear dead in the water. News coverage has been scant, and insiders will tell you the paths to the RPA’s success in the past are no longer open. But the veteran white-shoe group, more accustomed to whispering in the ears of the powerful than working the streets for support, isn’t done yet. They are looking for new allies among the more than 50,000 nonprofit and community groups throughout the region.
“We’re doing more work among grass-roots groups because we’ve changed, the region has changed and the city polity has changed,” says RPA Executive Director Robert Yaro. “Now we need to create coalitions of civic groups that can promote actions around the recommendations of the plan. The RPA is not in the Lone Ranger business anymore.”
Founded in 1923 as the Committee on the Regional Plan, the RPA issued two previous Olympian plans–in 1929 and 1968–which heavily emphasized land use and transportation reforms. Supporters say these plans helped maintain the region as a center of national economic activity; critics argue they laid the groundwork for a commercial and residential development bonanza that helped drive many New York manufacturers out of business or out of town.
In the past, the RPA’s influence came largely from civic-minded titans like the brothers Rockefeller, various Morgan bankers and the munificent Russell Sage Foundation. “It wasn’t a strict mechanism,” says Fred Siegel, the Cooper Union historian and left-wing apostate turned Giuliani advisor. “There was a kind of association, a familiarity. These people had an honored place at the table.”
That’s not to say there is no corporate support these days: The RPA has a $1.7 million annual budget, and the 60-member board boasts directors from GE Capital, Chase Manhattan Bank, Goldman Sachs, and Deloitte and Touche. Dozens of corporations donated money for “A Region at Risk”–30 of them gave more than $100,000. But the times have assuredly changed. With the decline in the number of Fortune 500 giants headquartered here and the Wall Street-induced mania for downsizing, global expansion and rapid-fire turnover at the top comes a waning of corporate noblesse oblige, and the RPA has to hunt for new friends.
Times have changed politically, as well. Siegel argues that city planning simply doesn’t hold sway among the powerful the way it once did. “You certainly don’t have any major politicians involved with transportation issues,” he laments. But Al Appleton, a senior fellow at RPA who served as commissioner of environmental protection under Mayor David Dinkins, notes that the change in lunch partners can also be attributed to the rise of the grassroots.
“Twenty-five years ago, you didn’t have the community group structure as now. If you’re going to get things built, you have to realize there’s a lot of stake-holders,” he says. “The local groups are there because the public felt a need for them–they didn’t like what they got with the old system.”
A Region at Risk, co-authored by Yaro and essayist Tony Hiss, aims to deal with the needs of this 20-million person, 31-county region well into the next century. Its recommendations are centered around five campaigns–to protect the greensward and watersheds surrounding the city, create a rational passenger and freight transportation system, assist still-struggling urban centers such as Jamaica and Newark, provide a superior education for the area’s workforce, and fashion new structures for regional governance. Taken together, they are meant to create a more sustainable future for the region, economically, environmentally and socially.
The Regional Plan Association’s new era was on display last summer, when Jo Anne Simon, chair of the Gowanus Expressway Community Coalition, shared the lectern with Appleton at a City Hall press conference to unveil plans for a proposed four-mile, $2.4 billion tunnel to replace Brooklyn’s decomposing Gowanus Expressway. The 23 groups in the community coalition give the RPA’s proposal a constituency few of its projects have ever had. They are all from neighborhoods abutting or close to the crippled expressway, and they’re fighting hard to block the state Department of Transportation’s plan to reconstruct the elevated highway.
“The RPA learned that if they didn’t access local ideas they would go astray. They learned things they wouldn’t have known, like where traffic bottlenecks would likely be,” says Simon, a disability attorney and president of the Boerum Hill Association. She says the RPA has incorporated the coalition’s suggestions into their design.
“Our proposals are made much stronger by going back and forth to the community with the plan,” Appleton says. “We’re trying to be an asset to the community groups leading the charge.”
The Gowanus project is not an aberration. Since the third plan was released, the RPA has led the Governor’s Island Group–a civic coalition to evaluate public uses for the property after its federal disposition–and joined other groups working to redevelop abandoned industrial sites in the area. The RPA has also signed on to the 250-member Greensward Council’s forest and water initiatives, and helped establish a multipartnered lobbying effort to reauthorize the federal transportation legislation known as ISTEA. Efforts on education and the workforce are in the works.
“[The RPA’s plan can bring community leaders, civic actors, environmentalists, environmental justice advocates and civil rights organizations into a dialogue,” says longtime housing and community activist Ron Shiffman, director of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development. Those who follow nonprofit politics around the city might be surprised to see Shiffman supporting the RPA, but it shows how different things are these days.
The unlikely pairing isn’t lost on Yaro, who recalls a demonstration outside an RPA event in 1976: “There was Ron Shiffman in what for all I know was a tie-dyed T-shirt picketing and demonstrating against the plutocrats of RPA. Now here’s Ron working with us. And part of that’s Ron, part of that’s the world, and part of that’s us, because RPA is a different place. And it’s made us a better organization and a much more effective organization.”
Shiffman remembers it differently. He says the RPA was honoring planning fixture Roger Starr shortly after the soon-to-be ex-city housing commissioner floated his notorious ‘planned shrinkage’ policy, which espoused pulling city services out of poor neighborhoods to encourage residents to leave. “We were planners and had reasons that were substantive to be there. In the same circumstances I would do it again,” Shiffman says. He remembers wearing a jacket, tie and likely a blue chambray shirt, appropriate gear for a properly outraged city planner.
Shiffman describes his current work with RPA as “an effort to promote citizen, community and business participation in reviewing, enhancing and developing” the plan’s suggestions. To get the private sector into local affairs again, he wants to promote a “civic pledge,” where businesses “provide executives and financial support to boards of community and civic groups and establish ‘mentoring relationships’ with these groups and with emerg-ing community leaders.”
Shiffman insists participants need not agree with everything the plan advocates, which is probably a good thing. “This is about getting people together to comment on it,” he says, adding that he hopes such gatherings “build new collaborative relationships among community, business, environmental and other activist groups.” In other words, they don’t even have to like each other, but, courtesy of the once remote and removed RPA, they may be able to work together.
Michael Hirsch is a frequent contributor to City Limits.