Thursday, February 23, 2006

Gondolas to Gov's Island: Breathtaking Inanity

Last week when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg made another plea for development proposals for Governor's Island and revealed Santiago Calatrava's vision for gondolas linking Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn to the Island, I was tempted to nominate this for another edition of Breathtaking Inanity. But I quickly realized it's meant to be just a teaser, so I didn't bother.

But today, the Times' Nicolai Ouroussoff puts the gondolas into an urban planning context that makes this much more worthy of comment. Ouroussoff rightly points out that this latest plea for ideas is an obvious if not explicit admission that the city's planning/economic development departments are bereft of ideas themselves and have outsourced planning to the private sector (with the notable exception of the West Chelsea/High Line rezoning plan, which recently won the American Planning Association award for Best Community Plan ... and of course, that was a zoning thing, which the city knows quite well, but I digress):

"[C]onjuring an image for the island's future will be left up to developers. ... Not all countries operate this way. In Spain and the Netherlands, city and regional governments typically organize elaborate design competitions for a major urban site, then hire a developer to figure out how to put the idea into practice.

An aggressive government role in galvanizing the best creative minds is virtually nonexistent in the United States, where political and financial power has shifted to the private realm. That's why New York has fallen behind cities like Barcelona, Rotterdam and even London in terms of the level of ambition behind public works projects. In New York, the system can foster a poisonous mix of political self-interest and commercial greed, as it did at ground zero.

And there you have it, the problem in a nutshell. One of the first pieces I wrote as a brand new freelancer in New York City was for Metropolis magazine that touched on this very issue. An urban planning firm founded in Amsterdam had opened an office in New York in hopes of applying their waterfront redevelopment expertise here. As far as I know, since then they've had one New York client in four years because we DON'T PLAN HERE. We throw designs at the wall and see what sticks. Is it any wonder then that Governor's Island, perhaps the most intriguing piece of developable land in the Northern hemisphere, has been collecting dust since the Coast Guard abandoned it more than ten years ago?

The final irony (did I just use that cliched phrase?) is that this Dutch-based planning firm has been trying to get involved with Governor's Island since they first set up shop here more than four years ago -- the same little island that a Dutchman purchased from Native Americans with two ax heads, a string of beads, and a handful of nails in 1637.