Do we need another Robert Moses?

November 29, 2012 By Henrik Krogius Brooklyn Heights Press & Cobble Hill News
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We owe the Brooklyn Heights Promenade to Robert Moses, even if it’s not what he set out to build, but rather came about as an unintended com- promise. In Brooklyn alone, which was hardly the major focus of the ‘master builder,’ we owe to Moses the BQE, the Belt Parkway, the Gowanus Expressway, the Prospect Expressway, Owl’s Head Park, Marine Park, Canarsie Beach Park, Spring Creek Park, the Cadman Towers apartments, and those links to other boroughs, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel (though Moses dearly wanted to make that a bridge instead) and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Not all of these are equally regarded as blessings, but the balance would seem to be in favor of the good.

The question of whether we need another Moses was speculated on in the Nov. 20 New York Times by architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, writing about the need for a more radical approach to defending the city against future rising waters and storm surges. Recognizing that Moses’ often callous methods destroyed many neighborhoods and starved mass transit, Kimmelman wrote that after Moses the city turned to such “good things” as community-based initiatives, preservation and environ- mentalism, but also “lost something of its nerve.”

“Our election cycles tend to thwart infrastructural improvements that can take decades and don’t provide short-term ribbon-cutting payoffs for politicians,” Kimmelman wrote, noting that the politicians also don’t like to make decisions that will upset their constituents, such as deciding that it might be wiser not to rebuild Sandy-devastated areas like Breezy Point. He thought the people there “should be given knowledge, power and choice about their options, then the responsibility to live by that choice” — presumably meaning they should not expect another round of reconstruction in the event of a new disaster. The trouble is, people insist on wanting to live where it’s unwise.

Coming to our own Brooklyn Bridge Park (something Moses might well have decided to build, but maybe quite differently), Kimmelman spoke of a visit to the park with its designers, noting that the park’s “soft edges” had helped it withstand Sandy (though not mentioning that it also has hard rocky and concrete edges). But the vulnerability of buildings in the park came up in a major profile in the Times Metropolitan section this Sunday about the reclusive philanthropist Joshua Rechnitz who is putting up $40 million to build a Fieldhouse/velodrome there. The storage build- ing near Pier 5 that it will replace did not flood, even if the water reached its edges, and a Fieldhouse official was quoted as saying that delays in de- sign were not due to Sandy (the design is to be unveiled in early 2013). If that means potential flooding was taken into account early on, that’s one thing, but not to take it into account at all would be a disastrous error.

There’s no question that almost every project of consequence takes much longer to get built today than it did under Moses (he died in 1981 at 92). It is well over 25 years since the first community-generated pro- posals for Brooklyn Bridge Park surfaced. If Moses were still around, he might well be pushing through surge barriers, levees, flood gates and other expedients to counter the effects of coming storms, and he might be forcing decisions on what to, and what not to, rebuild. Such decisionsare currently dependent on myriad levels of government, public hearings and the conflicting pressures on politicians.

But then, as James Atlas gloomily wrote in the Times Sunday Review section, and as a series of maps illustrated, in a few hundred years almost 40 percent of the entire city is likely to be under water. “All the more reason to appreciate what we have while we have it,” Atlas concluded. 

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