Tom Angotti At Brooklyn Exchanges

10-30-2008

Last night was the inaugural event of Brooklyn Exchanges, a new discussion forum conceived to generate dialogue about urbanism, architecture, design and development in Brooklyn. Brooklyn Exchanges is generously supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, and is hosted by Interboro and  The Metropolitan Exchange. Special thanks to MEx member Meredith Tenhoor for her curatorial efforts! For the inaugural event, Tom Angotti, Director of the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development and Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of New York, presented his new book New York for Sale, published by MIT Press. From the back cover: Remarkably, grassroots-based community planning flourishes in New York City, the self-proclaimed “real estate capital of the world”, with at least seventy community plans for different neighborhoods throughout the city. Professor Angotti will help to contextualize opportunities and challenges to community planning in Brooklyn by sharing stories from his book, discussing how activists have moved beyond simple protests and have formulated plans to protect neighborhoods against urban renewal, real estate mega-projects, gentrification, and environmental hazards. Interboro found Tom’s talk inspiring. Tom began by saying that, having been a planner for a few decades, he has come to the conclusion that being a community planner is the most rewarding, most important work a planner could do. Though Tom didn’t quite address Interboro’s question about what, exactly, community planners do (Tom instead underlined how rewarding the work is) he did a good job defending his enthusiasm, mostly by talking about the ways in which the plans drawn up by communities (both official, 197-A plans and otherwise) are typically better than the ones drawn up by professionals (although not always, as evidenced by Tom’s analysis of the Riverside Plan, which, perhaps not surprisingly, was adopted by the city quickly and without hesitation). Interboro would like to have seen a more in-depth presentation on one of the community plans, perhaps with some visuals (Cooper Square? Nos Quedamos?), but Tom’s decision to speak more generally about the book was reasonable enough, especially considering the conclusion that Tom reached after studying close to 100 community plans, namely, that the professionals in City Planning don’t do planning (they do zoning) and that community plans are typically not only better for the community that authors the plan, but better for the city as a whole. Indeed, when Interboro asked whether or not the notion, invoked by community planners, that a community is defined as a spatially-coherent territory of residents is anachronistic, in light of the fact that so much city space is defined by the polyrhythms of commuters, tourists, and other “guests” that come and go, Tom responded by noting that the case studies seriously undermine the argument that community plans are driven by NIMBYism, or that communities somehow don’t see the larger picture. The City, Tom insists, has its own NIMBY problem: the way the planning institutions are structured has engendered myopia. For example, planning can tackle zoning issues, but not traffic issues, which is the responsibility of DOT. As might be expected from a MEx audience, Tom faced some other tough questions (for example, Tom’s insistence that it is in the development community’s interest to work more with community groups was met with some skepticism), but in the end, Tom made a very passionate plea for community planning, laying out a program for how communities can be empowered to start setting the terms of debates about New York City’s future.   Finally, Tom’s talk engendered a lot of post-lecture debate. In response to the question above, a woman named Sandy testified that development projects in Boreum Hill are actually regularly slowed or hampered by the neighborhood’s rather powerful community board, but that those projects for which the developer has collaborated with and consulted with the community board first have actually been built faster and with fewer hassles. Meredith suggested that the same could be said for Atlantic Yards, which Meredith said would be advanced if Forest City Rater had not slammed the project down in front of the community and generated so much hostility and so many lawsuits which are holding the project up in court. Meredith added that a lot of her own research has shown that this approach tends to slow construction projects in other contexts too (Paris, Berlin, New York).

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