Civics Lesson

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Something happened at the Jacob Javits Center on July 20, besides the resounding rejection of the six World Trade Center redevelopment plans put forward by the Port Authority and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Close to 5,000 New Yorkers had the opportunity to give direct input on public policy. “The general public had a chance to speak out in a thoughtful and considered way,” said Robert Yaro, executive director of the Regional Plan Association and one of the leaders of the Civic Alliance, the group that convened the event. “If you give concerned citizens the facts, they will think and do the right thing. It’s a Jeffersonian democracy.” Organizers claimed it was the largest town meeting in the nation’s history.

The “Listening to the City” event had its intended effect: The two rebuilding authorities are now under pressure to respond to public opinion of their site plans. But an ongoing public voice is hardly assured. With at least a decade of rebuilding to come, the Civic Alliance now has to figure out how to keep going. “The question is whether this is a home run in the first inning or we’ve just won the first game and have the whole season left,” said Ron Shiffman, executive director of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development and a member of the Civic Alliance steering committee.

The public can join that discussion, too, at a Civic Alliance meeting this Wednesday. According to Shiffman, the group’s steering committee last week came to a “great deal of consensus” over ideas aired at the town meeting, including the need for low-income housing downtown and for an open competition for new site development plans.

Indeed, Yaro anticipates that developing alternatives to the unpopular LMDC proposals will be a big part of what the Civic Alliance will do. He expects the group to keep the public voice loud through mechanisms like forums, community planning workshops, and the Listening to the City web site. Adds Yaro, “We’re going to be an advocate for the City Planning Commission to take a look at all of downtown,” not just the 2.5 percent of lower Manhattan at Ground Zero.

To do all that, the Civic Alliance now needs to raise a good deal of money. It already spent $2 million on Listening to the City alone, and another $1.5 million is committed to other efforts to influence the planning process. It also has to maintain the interest and involvement of 75 member organizations, ranging from immigrant and labor groups to real estate lobbyists.

Not everyone spoke of Saturday as a model of democracy. For Eva Hanhardt, director of the Planning Center at the Municipal Art Society, the level of real input available to the public was limited by having participants react to completed plans rather than propose what a plan should entail. “Time will tell if in fact what happened leads to a vision that includes what the public wants,” she said. “I think it was important. But public participation, to be vital, must have many different avenues. If decision makers will only listen when you have 5,000 people and electronics, we will have lost more than we gained.”

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