The Ripple Effect of Thoughtful Planning

In a post on Rooflines on April 18, Shelterforce editor Miriam Axel-Lute wrote that gentrification in Brooklyn is the result of plans by bodies like the Regional Plan Association, not market forces. The post profiled an article by Doug Henwood, “How the 1 Percent Rules,” which appeared in the May 6 edition of The Nation.

This story of planning New York raises questions similar to the ones dissected in a book I recently reviewed, Planning Chicago.

Henwood argues that “gentrification and displacement in New York City are aided and abetted, and really even driven, by plans developed by bodies like the Regional Plan Association as far back as 1929.” He asserts that the deindustrialization of the city—more than 700,000 manufacturing jobs, two-thirds of the total, disappeared between 1950 and 1990, a period when national factory employment rose by more than a third—wasn’t merely the product of “outside forces” like globalization and technological change. “It was planned, via the influence of the RPA and other entities like the Real Estate Board of New York on the city planning apparatus.”

Instead of protecting manufacturing as a valuable resource using zoning and tax breaks, exactly the opposite tack was taken: zoning changes and tax breaks designed to squeeze the little factories out and replace them in accordance with the six-part hierarchy of … (1) financial business, (2) fancy retail, (3) fancy residential, (4) inferior retail, (5) wholesalers and, at the bottom of the list, (6) industry and working-class housing. The ultimate goal was to turn the city into one of the peaks at the commanding heights of global economic activity: finance, senior management and media.

Henwood goes on to highlight another road that can be taken in our communities which can be found in the redevelopment of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. “It’s now home to several hundred businesses employing more than 8,600 at not-bad-if-not-great wages: manufacturers, food processors, a film studio and green businesses.”

He cites a recent report by the Pratt Center for Community Development, estimating that the Navy Yard indirectly creates close to 1,500 jobs for every 1,000 it creates directly.

Henwood emphasizes several unique features that have contributed to the Yard’s success. “One is that it’s a dedicated industrial area, with fixed zoning and, since it’s city-owned, insulated from attack by real estate speculators. Another is that, while it aims to turn a profit (even though it’s formally a nonprofit), it reinvests the profits in upgrading the yard. It also pursues a coherent tenant recruitment strategy, focusing on industries that fit in with existing tenants and show economic promise.”  As Henwood observes, it “can afford to be picky, because it has a long waiting list—a sign that imitations could be successful.”

Ted Wysocki is CEO of the Institute of Cultural Affairs-USA and founder of U2Cando Consulting. Previously, Ted was CEO of the Local Economic & Employment Development Council, now North Branch Works, and CEO of the Chicago Association of Neighborhood Development Organizations (CANDO). Ted is also a director emeritus of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.


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