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Midtown West Side Story: A Conversation With Robert Moses
by Tom Angotti
I had a dream the other night that Robert Moses, the city's famous master builder of the Twentieth Century, came back from the dead to visit New York. Yes, the long-reviled Moses who bulldozed neighborhoods and replaced them with expressways and high rises; who built parks and parkways in the suburbs; who re-shaped New York for the car. (See Robert Caro's The Power Broker on the Land Use book list.)
Moses came back when he saw Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan for "Midtown West," the area of Manhattan once known as Hells Kitchen.
Midtown West would basically bring an end to Hells Kitchen, the historic rough-and-tumble working class neighborhood on the west side of Manhattan. This is the neighborhood where West Side Story took place, where generations of immigrants lived, where tens of thousands of New Yorkers still make their home. It's a neighborhood that's been depleted of its population over the last century, cut up by giant renewal projects like the Jacob Javits Convention Center, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, Lincoln Center, and the access ramps to the Lincoln Tunnel. Decades ago, the northernmost part of Hells Kitchen was renamed "Clinton" in efforts to distinguish it from its notorious past.
The plan includes a stadium to be built over the west side rail yards that would be a keystone in the 2012 Olympics, should New York City win the world competition for that event. It also involves extension of the number 7 subway line. The city would give developers hefty zoning bonuses to encourage high rise development in two core areas. A "mixed use" district would incorporate some of the remaining low- to mid-rise residential, commercial and industrial uses. New office buildings would be allowed in the adjacent garment district, where there are now strict limits on new construction. Running through Midtown West and lining the Hudson River waterfront would be an open space network. The plan for Midtown West is basically the same as the one put out by the City Planning Department almost two years ago, and design principles released by the department last fall.
WALKING WITH ROBERT MOSES
In my dream, Moses was walking the streets of Hells Kitchen - sorry, Midtown West - with me. I don't know where he went after he died in 1981, but I guess they didn't have limos there. (When he was the planning czar of New York City, Moses wouldn't be caught dead walking anywhere.)
Moses told me he came back because he was so happy that Hells Kitchen was finally going to be wiped off the map, just like all the other neighborhoods he got rid of while he engineered the city's massive urban renewal programs.
"What do you like about the mayor's plan?" I asked him.
"Well, first of all he did it my way," Moses said of the new mayor. "Didn't listen to those people who live there. What do they know anyway? You have to think big and think about the future! You want to expand midtown to the west, just do it! How do you think we got Lincoln Center?"
"But tens of thousands live and work here," I said.
"Look at this neighborhood, it's such a mess you might just as well start all over again. You've got the Port Authority Bus Terminal with all those monster buses, all those ugly parking lots, the access roads to the Lincoln Tunnel, the rail yards, a bunch of small warehouses and industries. And there sits the lonely Javits Convention Center. Who would want to live here or even visit with all this noise and pollution? The mayor's got the right idea. Change its name from Hells Kitchen to Midtown West. Turn it into a high rise business district. Get the people off the ground."
"But this area between Eighth and Ninth Avenues is supposed to be for mixed use," I said. "What do you think about that, Bob? You were always for the separation of uses."
"That's what happens when everybody reads Jane Jacobs and all that garbage about a fine-grained mixture of uses," Moses replied. [see The Death and Life of Great American Cities on the Land Use book list]. "They start muttering that stuff and pretty soon they believe in it. But if you read the city's plan (and I always do my homework) what they're really doing is converting it to a mid-rise and high-rise residential district by letting people build new apartment buildings. That will jack up rents so that none of the small businesses will stay. So it won't be 'mixed use.' The planners are just being clever, God bless them.
"The same thing with the Special Garment District," Moses continued. "That district, on the east end of Hells Kitchen, was set up to protect the garment industry. The planners know the special district rules are only there to protect those jobs, which aren't really good jobs like those in the finance and banking sectors. So the city's going to allow high rise offices to be built there. That's going to encourage speculation and create political pressure to drop the special district protections. You understand that's not the way I got rid of industry. I would just go in with my urban renewal powers, take the land, knock everything down and start all over again. But these planners don't have the courage it takes. They just follow the big private developers and hide behind the zoning rules. I did everything with strong public authorities."
THE #7 SUBWAY LINE
"Bob, what do you think about the idea of extending the #7 subway line? You were never an advocate of mass transit."
"Well, it's only a little more than a mile. It's not like putting in a new subway line or putting more buses on the streets. If it helps develop the area, I can live with it."
"Bob, instead of spending a couple of billion dollars to build a mile of subway line, why not build a trolley (call it "light rail" if you will) from Times Square at one-tenth the cost?" There are many such proposals. "Then the city could really create a pedestrian-friendly midtown. They would divert traffic from midtown so trolleys could run all day and night from Times Square to the waterfront and Convention Center."
"You Ivory Tower intellectuals are all the same!" Moses exclaimed impatiently. "Trolleys died before I did. You can't interfere with the God-given right of every American to drive wherever they want and whenever they want."
"So you must like the city's plan to shut down all the parking lots in Hells Kitchen - excuse me, West Midtown - so developers can build high rises on them, and build parking garages with even more spaces." I said.
He nodded his head in agreement.
"But that will encourage more traffic in the area, not less," I said.
"Traffic congestion means the city's a success," said Moses. "Besides, the city can always build more highways and widen streets."
It's that kind of thinking that keeps more people from coming to the city, but I didn't want to get him mad. He clearly hadn't lost his faith in the ability to engineer the city out of its problems.
"Bob, what do you think about the city's idea of giving zoning bonuses to developers? They'll let them build up to 50 percent more than the zoning would allow if the developers give the city money to pay for public infrastructure improvements in the area. Neat idea, huh?"
"Hey, that's a good one," Moses replied. "You know, a trick like that worked in Battery Park City so it could work here too. Proceeds from all that upscale development in Battery Park City were supposed to go into a trust fund that was to finance low- and moderate-income housing. About half the money never got collected and no one knows what happened to the rest of it. Neat idea when you've got a budget deficit. Of course Mayor Bloomberg will have to cut something else to pay for the infrastructure in West Midtown. By then nobody will remember the zoning bonus."
"And what do you think about the stadium proposal?"
"This kind of thing still stirs my heart," Moses said. "When you had all that opposition to building a stadium on the west side of Manhattan, the city came up with the Olympics 2012 plan. A stroke of genius. The Olympics plan was really done my way, by the specialists and without all those noisy neighborhood people. So now the loud-mouth nay sayers have to make a case not only against a stadium but the whole Olympics Axis." (See the Olympic 'X'.)
"Bob, you built a lot of public housing," I said. "But there's no mention of low-income housing in the plan for West Midtown."
"I only built public housing because I had to put the people I relocated somewhere," Moses replied, "and besides the federal government paid for it. Today all the feds do is give tax breaks. Happily, most people in Hells Kitchen were already forced to move. West Midtown will have midtown rents, so there won't be any place for poor people. Hells Kitchen will be no more. That's progress!"
OPEN SPACE NETWORK
"Bob, the plan has this open space network running through it, and the waterfront access. What do you think about that?"
"Now this is a bit ridiculous," Moses said. "What they're proposing isn't open space, it's just a bunch of trees on the street and wide sidewalks for the tourists. You wanna see open space go to Jones Beach and the other great parks I built. They put a little walkway on the waterfront and call it a park! Anyway, I guess parks don't belong in the city."
I thanked Robert Moses for the exciting walk and the lesson in city planning. After I woke up I looked around for my copy of Jane Jacobs.Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Planners Network Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning.
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