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Posts from the "Robert Moses" Category

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Fighting Freeways: War Stories From Portland

Rail~volution is underway in Portland, Oregon, bringing together more than 1,000 city planners, engineers, transit advocates, bike policy experts, and elected officials to strategize about making cities and towns better for transit, walking, and biking.

Monday started with 15 different workshops that took place around the city, including one highlighting Portland’s “Lost Freeways” – the roads that were never built, and one that was actually torn out. These battles happened decades ago, but in many cities, highway fights continue to this day, and in some, teardowns are looking more and more possible. (Take note, readers in New Orleans, St. Louis, Seattle, New York, and New Haven.)

Traveling around on bikes and on foot, two groups visited some notable sites in Portland’s battles against freeways. First, we saw some battlegrounds where the anti-freeway movement lost.

South Park Blocks and I-405

Here's the block of the Goose Hollow neighborhood right next to I-405...

Here's the block of the Goose Hollow neighborhood right next to I-405...

... and here's the highway that paved over two more blocks just like it. Images by Shoshanah Oppenheim.

... and here's the highway that paved over two more blocks just like it. Photos by Shoshanah Oppenheim

In 1943, Portland invited New York’s master freeway planner, Robert Moses, to come to town. After a month of study, he came out with an 86-page document mapping out the “future of Portland”: 14 freeways and a tangle of limited-access parkways to re-make the city. Portland would have become what longtime local transit official Dick Feeney calls “a wonderful place to drive a car through,” where “the neighborhoods would have all vanished.”

Today, one of those highways, I-405, runs right through downtown. Tour guide Sarah Mirk, author of Oregon history comic books (including one about dead highways), took us to a little grassy patch just across the I-405 overpass from the South Park Blocks, built in the mid-1960s.

This little marooned park over here is an orphan of when they built the I-405 freeway right here. The South Park Blocks are something people love in Portland; it’s a historic part of our city. And when they built I-405 through, they not only tore out two solid blocks of dense housing here in this neighborhood – which was really diverse, low-income housing – they also tore out two blocks of the South Park Blocks. People were really upset about that. And as a concession to people who were really upset about tearing out the park blocks, they said, we’ll do a ‘park-like treatment’ on the overpass coming over here. So you can see the overgrown bramble, and the cement, and the weeds. This is the ‘park-like treatment’ given to the South Park Blocks.

The freeway cut the neighborhood off from their school and library on the other side, becoming a “wall” between the residents and the services they used. Developers put in a bike-ped trail along the freeway as a concession.

That trail – unsigned, virtually unknown and unused – is known informally as the Ho Chi Minh trail. “Not to honor the Vietnamese leader,” says Mirk, “but because it was so dangerous and there were lots of muggings along here at night. There’s zero lighting, the neighbors have put up barbed wire, and it’s out of sight, out of sound. No one can hear you scream over the sound of the freeway.”

In my next post, I’ll get to the good stuff: the freeway plans that never saw the light of day, and one that came tumbling down.

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What Should We Learn From Moses and Jacobs?

There is probably no more beloved figure in urbanism than Jane Jacobs, who fought to preserve some of New York City's most treasured neighborhoods and who gave urbanists some of the field's fundamental texts. As Ed Glaeser notes in the New Republic this week, Jacobs died in 2006 "a cherished, almost saintly figure," while her principal antagonist, Robert Moses, remains popularly reviled as a villain.

3227424_t346.jpgJane Jacobs (center, in light dress) demonstrates at New York City's old Penn Station. (Photo: Metropolis)
But as American cities have outgrown their infrastructure in recent decades, and as political institutions have proven unable to muster the energy necessary to construct great projects, Moses' reputation has enjoyed something of a recovery. Increasingly, he is being actively rehabilitated in new histories and essays, of which Glaeser's review is an example.

These efforts are interesting because they manage to earn a degree of sympathy from urbanists themselves, who have grown increasingly tired of the decades required to navigate a transit line from planning stages to operation.

There is something very attractive about an individual who can drive the stakes and get the project built -- damn the politicians, and damn the NIMBYs.

But this is dangerous territory. In rehabilitating Moses and reconsidering Jacobs, it's important to be clear about where each was right, and where each went wrong.

There are many ways to interpret the clash between Moses and Jacobs: development versus preservation, city versus suburb, design for people versus design for automobiles, power versus powerlessness, and so on. To acknowledge that the balance has swung too far in one direction in one of these conflicts does not at all suggest that the balances are similarly out of whack on others.

Take, for example, one of Glaeser's principal intellectual standbys: that resistance to development slows the growth of housing supply, increasing housing costs. Glaeser says:

Read more...
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The Power of Moses: Please Wield Responsibly

An op-ed piece by Eleanor Randolph in today's New York Times finds yet another lesson in the current re-examination of Robert Moses's legacy. Randolph looks at the enormously powerful entities, usually known as authorities, that Moses left behind: "public-private hybrid[s] that can collect fees, take on debt and build things with little government interference."

Randolph points out that despite reforms over the past few years, the most influential authority, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, still operates outside many of the laws that cover government agencies, including public-meeting and freedom of information laws. And, given the enormous importance of Port Authority holdings, she rightly calls for more accountability:

[I]f Lower Manhattan is now being rebuilt under the same system that Moses used to both advantage and disadvantage New Yorkers, today's authorities must use their power more responsibly. Governor Spitzer should push for more rules imposing transparency and accountability, like requiring authority directors to sign an oath that they will carry out their fiduciary duties responsibly.

For the Port Authority, the New York and New Jersey Legislatures need to finally pass identical laws requiring public access to its enormous public works operations, which are, after all, the public's business. Mr. Coscia, like many authority directors, now promises "transparency" at some level. But it is worth worrying that future builders might decide, as Robert Moses did regularly, that the best way to respond to public concerns is to send out the bulldozers at midnight.
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Robert Moses’s Fundamental Misunderstanding


In the latest issue of the Regional Plan Association's Spotlight on the Region newsletter, editor Alex Marshall has an outstanding essay responding to the recent burst of Robert Moses revisionism. An excerpt:  

It all comes down to capacity. Like many people of his generation, I'm convinced, Moses essentially didn't understand the different capabilities of different modes of transportation, despite his learning and education. A freeway at top capacity can move only a few thousand vehicles per hour, and all those vehicles have to be put somewhere once they arrive where they're going. That means many lanes of freeways and many parking lots and garages chewing up prime real estate.

By comparison, a subway or commuter train can move tens of thousands of people per hour, and they all arrive without the need to store a vehicle. This essential fact is why Manhattan can have dozens of skyscrapers, which not incidentally produce millions in salaries, profits and taxes, crammed right next to each other without any parking lots.

Moses' vision of New York, if he had completed it, would have essentially downsized large parts of the city. At the MCNY exhibit, there's one artist's conception of what Soho would look like after the highway was cut through it. It essentially looked like Dallas or Houston - a broad boulevard lined with Edge City style office buildings. And whether you love or hate Dallas, it's a far less productive city than New York, when calculated on a per square foot basis.

This is what happened to much of Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx, which are still recovering from the damage Moses did. The boroughs are not only less hospitable because of the worst of Moses' freeways; they are also less productive.
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Eyes on the Street: Grim, Immovable

BQE.jpg

The BQE, as seen from Lorimer Street.

All this talk about Robert Moses lately leads one to think about the Freeway Revolt.