Karrie Jacobs


March 28, 2008

If You Don't Build It, They Won't Come

It’s been a turbulent week in the life of New York’s major development schemes. Last night, I was sitting at a long table at the Strand with Phillip Lopate and Ben Katchor, waiting for a panel discussion on the legacy of Jane Jacobs* to begin. However, our moderator, Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society, was running late. When he arrived, he explained that he was delayed because the Dolans, the family that controls Madison Square Garden, which sits atop Pennsylvania Station, had just pulled out of the complex deal to build a new Moynihan Station.

For the details on this saga, I’ll refer you to the New York Times‘ ace reporter, Charles Bagli.

For my own point of view, I’ll refer you to a column I wrote for the December 2007 issue of Metropolis, “Madison Square Station?”

Here’s the salient paragraph from my December column:

Long ago, Senator Moynihan secured funding to pay for a $900 million project. It is now projected to cost upward of $14 billion. And the development rights have been awarded to a pair of large private developers, a joint venture between Steven Roth’s Vornado Realty Trust, owner of much of the property surrounding the project site, and Stephen M. Ross’s Related Companies, developer of the Time Warner Center. The entity is known formally as the Venture and informally as the “Two Steves.” The fact that a civic project has become a vehicle for commercial interests is clearly a sign of the times. Or as Maura Moynihan put it, “The public sector can’t do it anymore: this is America.”

“The public sector can’t do it anymore: this is America.” Right.

I’m not angry at the Dolans for deciding not to move Madison Square Garden, thus upending a $14 billion dollar mega-development. I’m angry at the city, the state, and the country for turning an elegant civic project into an overstuffed commercial scheme, a nice roast chicken into a grotesque turducken. Unlike Moynihan’s original vision, the plan that apparently collapsed yesterday was at the mercy, not just of the Dolans, but of Wall Street, the credit markets, and shaky projections for economic growth. It collapsed under its own weight.

Maybe after the ’08 elections we’ll have a public sector again. If so, can we please just build a train station?

*I have heard it said — even by my fellow panelists last night — that Jane Jacobs is to blame our inability to plan and execute major developments, that her anti-planning philosophy has somehow rendered us impotent. I don’t buy it. Surely one dead public intellectual can’t be to blame for the Moynihan Station imbroglio. And I don’t see any sign of impotence here, just a surfeit of BSDs.