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The Art of the Impossible: Building Megaprojects

"Jane Jacobs not Marc Jacobs" reads a postcard making the rounds in New York City’s Greenwich Village, a plaint against the increasing "mall-ification" of that venerable neighborhood.

But beyond her old stomping ground--where she famously stopped highway builder Robert Moses from building an expressway through Washington Square Park--Jane Jacobs’ ideas continue to resonate in the messy debates over how we move people and goods around our regional economies.

Lately, that currency has been given a boost by Anthony Flint’s recent book, Wrestling with Moses, about the battles Jacobs fought with Moses. A review in these pages by the seemingly ubiquitous Ed Glaeser spawned a mini-web kerfuffle with the reviewer being taken to task as somewhat of a Moses apologist.

That debate was highly theoretical, wondering what our urban fabric might be like if we hadn’t slashed through it with limited access highways. But we’ve already built those highways and stopped many others (D.C.’s Inner Beltway, Boston’s Southwest Corridor, and Seattle’s R.H. Thomson Expressway/ramps to nowhere among them) due to the upwelling of public opposition Jacobs spawned.

Though we’ve long abandoned the top down raw power highway development model Moses perfected, his star shines a little more brightly lately due to his ability to Get Things Done.

As Glaeser notes, the only way large projects get built in the United States now is to grease the stakeholders (funny how a word that once meant neutral custodian of gambling wagers now means interested party) with amenities and other expensive mollifications.

Beyond new parks and playgrounds, this resulted in extensive testing and monitoring of zoo animals as Portland built light rail under its West Hills, and it meant the purchase of air conditioners, soundproofing, and comfier mattresses for residents of Boston’s North End during the Big Dig.

But in era of constrained budgets, those emoluments seem untenable, and another legacy of the Big Dig--its mammoth $14 billion cost and budget overruns--make them more so.

In Seattle, plans to build one of the largest megaprojects of the Great Recession--the $4.2 billion tunnel replacement of the earthquake vulnerable Alaskan Way Viaduct on the downtown waterfront--have roiled the electorate and spawned many comparisons to the Big Dig.

 Despite a signed deal between the city and the state to pay for the state highway project, an alliance of environmentalists against any spending on roads and queasy taxpayers worried about overruns--deemed a (legally questionable) city responsibility in the agreement--were a factor in the primary defeat of Mayor Greg Nickels, the outgoing chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, as he attempted an always difficult third term.

As longtime gadfly and journalist Knute Berger observed in the invaluable Northwest news site Crosscut, both supporters and opponents of a tunnel replacement for the viaduct claim Jacobs’ mantle. Supporters because it would reclaim the waterfront for people through a transformative investment; opponents because they argue that building for cars and not people is a path to unsustainable ruin.

Until this week, the two remaining candidates for mayor have been on opposite sides of the issue. Now they both support the tunnel deal--albeit one with substantial circumspection.

It remains to be seen what will happen when a new mayor is sworn in, but it would seem that in the midst of this downturn another iteration of how we build public works will have to emerge.

As Robert Caro said in the introduction to his seminal biography of Moses, The Power Broker, “We as a society have not learned how to build public projects.” It's as true today as it was when the book was published in 1974.