The needler in the haystack.

Friday, May 6, 2016

WWJJD?


Google honored Jane Jacobs on her 100th anniversary
on Wednesday with this graphic for its search box.

No, not "What would Jesus do?", but rather "What would Jane Jacobs do?"

Wednesday was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jane Jacobs, the Scranton, PA, native who made a name for herself fighting the mighty modernist planner/developer Robert Moses (he of the wretched Cross-Bronx Expressway and other nightmares) to a standstill.

Her book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, early on became the bible of resistance to urban renewal's vision of neighborhoods replaced by towers and expressways.

Moses had an autocratic style, considered public input unnecessary and built an empire by creating public interest corporations that generated their own finances and made him mostly independent of government funding, intervention or oversight.

Jacobs, on the other hand, lived in Greenwich Village and was an acute observer of neighborhood and street life. Her observations of what makes neighborhoods work -- diversity of uses (residential, small businesses and service providers all mixed together) -- along with her insistence on public input into the deelopment conversation as well as taking a long-range view on providing infrastructure support, made her a folk hero.

Her most basic characterization was that there are "foot people" and "car people". She was a foot person; Moses a car person (though he used limousines rather than drive himself).

I thought of Jacobs at once when a Mr. Cooley came to the mike at Monday's City Council agenda-setting session concerning a vacant city-owned lot he has helped turn into a community garden.

The property on South Avenue, abuts a brownfields lot created when the city demolished an existing building during the Robinson-Briggs administration.

Mr. Cooley told the Council that he had been told by an inspector from the city to stop gardening on the unused city lot. Seeing nothing wrong with trying to beautify the neighborhood on a volunteer basis, he was seeking help on the matter.

Jane Jacobs would have applauded these grassroots efforts and encouraged the city to work out some agreement with the neighbors so they could continue to use the property as a community garden until there was a buyer or other use for it.

This led me to wonder what Jacobs would think of some of the various projects currently under way throughout the city.

Here is how I think she would see them --

ELMWOOD GARDENS

This Housing Authority project to replace several mid-rise apartment buildings with a smaller number of townhouse-style dwellings would probably get mixed reviews. The main reasons being that there was very little public input into the process, leaving the residents fearful and anxious for an undue length of time.In the end, many families were displaced in the density-reducing scheme.

In the meantime, new owners on the streets abutting the site (Elmwood Place and Plainfield Avenue) have made improvement to several residences. In addition the former Getty station at Front and Plainfield has become a source of foot traffic now that is is a garage and convenience store.

LIBERTY VILLAGE

In 2014, proposed new owners of this 1970s townhome complex were trying to negotiate a purchase and extension of the underlying PILOT agreement.

The City Council's assent was needed to extend the PILOT, but the Council dragged its feet and opposed Mayor Mapp's effort to move the PILOT forward, citing time constraints that would cause the deal to fall through if no action was taken. A Council majority was unmoved, even though the failure of the deal might mean that residents would lose their rent subsidies and be put out on the street.

In the course of the controversy, it came to light that the owners had sued the Housing Authority to void its management contract because the property had been neglected under their stewardship.

Councilor Rebecca Williams, whose ward includes part of Liberty Village, came to the aid of the distressed tenants. Mobilizing them to come to the Council and protest the delaying tactics, she and the residents were able to overcome the Council majority's resistance. The PILOT measure was passed, the deal closed and no residents lost their apartments.

Jacobs would certainly approve of the tenants' activism and Councilor Williams' role in mobilizing them.

SOUTH SECOND STREET

Jacobs would probably also give mixed reviews to the proposed mixed use development on South Second Street between Grant Avenue and Muhlenberg Place.

It can be argued that the proposal fits in with suggestions developed as part of a citizen-driven charette conducted by Rutgers urban planning students a few years back.

A five-story apartment complex will rise at the corner of Plainfield Avenue, and a modern commercial warehouse will occupy the other end of the parcel. There is a small existing neighborhood shopping area along Grant Avenue and some shopping on nearby West Front Street. This project has been fast-tracked by the City Council.

While these are pluses, I am not aware of any changes to the public transportation access in the immediate neighborhood to make the residential portion truly "transit-oriented".

SOUTH AVENUE GATEWAY

This large-scale luxury apartment complex is slated to occupy eleven existing properties along the south side of the avenue near Plainwood Square Park. It was the subject of a special meeting of the Council last evening to amend the development agreement to include a new ownership structure for the project.

I think Jacobs would give this project mixed reviews also.

While it is expected that residents will help improve the services businesses along the South Avenue corridor and it is within walking distance of the Netherwood train station neighborhood input was cursory -- when compare with the South Second Street project.

Also on the negative side is that one of the city's thriving restaurants (not to mention the unofficial Democratic "watering hole" (the Netherwood) is being driven out by the debvelopment. This is an unfortunate loss which I am sure Jacobs would find disappointing.

Secondly, the project fails to comply with one of the most basic principles of "transit oriented development" in that it is entirely residential, with no retail component.
While Jacobs would no doubt be pleased to see Plainfield beginning to move forward, I am sure she would insist that we can do better as we do so.


  -- Dan Damon [follow]


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