NYC’s Former Chief Urban Designer Sets Up Shop in Red Hook, Brooklyn
Alexandros Washburn is surely the most impressively-credentialed urban planner to ever set up shop in scruffy Red Hook, Brooklyn. The former chief urban designer for the City of New York, and currently a professor at Stevens Institute, Washburn has opened an office in the ground floor of his Brooklyn home and, with the help of research assistant Jason Beury, invited the public to stop in and talk about the future of their community.
Red Hook is in transition and, in a sense, under dual siege. While it’s a coastal community, subject to the same challenges of any waterfront settlement, the neighborhood has at the same time attracted the attention of large real estate developers. Washburn is attempting to help create a citizen’s voice that can articulate some community-based alternatives to those two threats.
Washburn, the author of The Nature of Urban Design: A New York Perspective on Resilience, has decades of experience on both sides of the planning divide. He was an aide to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the 1990s and served as the first president of the Pennsylvania Station Redevelopment Corporation. Today, his focus is tighter and, as he describes it, “hyper-local.” Recently I talked to him about his storefront urban design initiative.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
AW: Alexandros Washburn
Give me the background on your unique effort.
Where do we begin? Hurricane Sandy hit Red Hook very hard. Our neighborhood was flooded, my house was flooded. The event showed us that our coastal community was not strong enough, physically, to deal with the dangers of storm surge and rising sea levels. But it also proved to us that, socially, we have a great foundation. We possess social resilience, and that came out in the way that people helped each other, after the storm. We had the basis to become resilient, but we needed to change.
At the same time, there are all sorts of real estate forces in play that also want to change Red Hook. Those forces do not necessarily have the best interests of Red Hook at heart. Capital wants to make more capital. So our community is in the cross hairs of both global climate change and global capital flows.
Now when you say “community” who does that mean specifically?
The community is the people of Red Hook. People from Van Brunt Street, people from Pioneer Street, people from Red Hook Houses, even people who simply love Red Hook but don’t live here. Defining “community” is not about making a list. It’s about activating a network of people who create social bonds among themselves. Gerald E. Frug, a Harvard Law School professor, loves to startle his students by saying, “There’s no such thing as ‘community’ in the United States.” By that he means, there’s no legal definition of community. We can legally define a state, a city, a metropolitan area, a congressional district, even a zip code. But we can’t legally define community.
So to find the community you start by engaging it. You have people over. You walk the street, you talk to people. You create the conditions for people to interact. That’s why we have our open house, so that by interacting on planning we create social bonds of community. In a way, the community is as much the links between people as the people themselves.
Do you have office hours, when people can just drop in?
Yes. We hold the open houses regularly, and I just post the exact hours on a signboard in my window. The open houses are an informal alternative to the many official meetings we have in Red Hook, where you sign in and people take minutes. Our meetings give people the chance to think out loud, in a relaxed way, without the whole audience watching.
So if I’m walking down Van Brunt Street, in Red Hook, I can knock on the door, and share my hopes and fears about the neighborhood?
It’s as simple as that. We sit around a big glass table, with tracing paper, pin-up walls, blackboards, and computers. People just come in, and we talk about Red Hook. And because we have a lot of technical expertise in the neighborhood, we can answer questions. We can decipher these otherwise unfathomable zoning issues and terminologies.
And it’s not limited by your address, not limited by whether you’re a renter or owner, or your credentials. It’s for everyone with an idea for Red Hook; we’ve even had a couple from Norway peek in and tell us how much Red Hook reminds them of their hometown, Toyven. Then they offered up suggestions for sharing markets. At our last meeting before the holidays, we had people from Thor Equities. They had heard we were gathering and they stopped over. And we had a good talk, about transportation. So we had somebody from the Red Hook Houses, as well as representatives from one of the wealthiest developers in New York. It’s common ground and casual enough that we can get people to express their ideas, comfortably.
After six or eight months of this process, you will have talked to X-amount of people and gathered X-amount of ideas. What do you hope to do with those ideas?
We’ve been thinking about the future of Red Hook for a number of years. Then, at the end of the summer, we had the AECOM proposal come out. AECOM is the world’s largest engineering firm. They design skyscrapers and subways. So they put out this million dollar study saying Red Hook needed skyscrapers and subways. They began lobbying politicians, but they never asked us. Totally top-down and out of touch.
We’ve known for a long time that we’ve been in the cross hairs of real estate, but this proposal brought it home. It became time to formulate some of these ideas that community groups have been working on for a long time. For instance, New York Rising is the backbone of the planning and resilience work here in Red Hook. They’re the organization that helped me think through and structure some of what we’re doing.
Meanwhile, we have our city councilman, Carlos Menchaca, who has a big say on what changes can happen in Red Hook, in terms of zoning. He’s an important voice and having him help us convene and sponsor is a way of turning traditional planning on its head. Instead of waiting for or accepting top down decisions—AECOM, for example, politically connected, for profit—we’re now working it bottom up. But it’s an informed bottom up.
Here’s an example: The Model Block, which first came up working with BASF a couple years ago to find repeatable solutions for 1 billion people in the world who live in vulnerable coastal communities, like Red Hook. The Model Block was a concept to find not just neighborhood scale solutions, but block scale solutions. It’s a theoretical idea we are now trying to turn that into a practical one. Which is to ask people the question: what do you like best about Red Hook? And how can we put that into a single block that can be repeated? It’s different from the way zoning normally works, because zoning is normally applied to several blocks at once. This brings the scale down to the block itself. To do that, you need to know, what do people want for their families and what do they hope for in their neighborhood? And then try to figure out what kind of buildings can meet those needs, and then what kind of mixed-use block can combine those buildings into a solid foundation for the future. Jane Jacobs called such blocks, “building blocks” because they were the foundations of neighborhoods.
What’s the timing on Red Hook rezoning? When will that happen?
We don’t know. I’m working with an Italian developer who has several blocks of Red Hook. They have a vision of making a Design District. Like the place called Zona Tortona in Italy, in Milan. It’s a fascinating concept, but what does that mean for the people living in Red Hook? How does it affect the rest of the community? How does that idea fit into the larger scale? They’re a great example of the multi-block scale. They’re also right on the line of the flood wall that’s being proposed for Red Hook.
This flood wall proposal, a city initiative, is called the IFPS. We’re not entirely comfortable with this idea of a giant wall running through Red Hook. So, we asked, are there other ideas, like Dutch polders? Where you could place something slightly off shore that could protect us, but we wouldn’t feel that it was in our face. And instead of a wall, perhaps make it a park. That was an idea that I’d seen when I was in Rotterdam last year, and I was able to bring that back and show it to people in the community, and ask: What do you think of that? We’ve come up with some ideas, at multiple scales.
What we are doing right now is the kind of leg work that should be done in any neighborhood that needs to change. But it’s time consuming and difficult for a city agency to do at the granular scale that our open houses allow. It’s a way of taking planning to finer scale, the scale of the individual citizen. And even though it’s hard to do, it’s the right starting point, for even the largest plans. Even a regional plan should start here before it grows into something larger. So, next time you’re in New York, if you’re here on a Wednesday, you should drop by.
Are those your regular hours?
So far, it’s been Wednesdays, two to four. Before I have to go pick up my kids from school. But we’re flexible and do some over the weekends as well.
So what’s it like to be on the other side of the planning process?
I love it! After so many years of being chief urban designer for the whole city, now I can focus on my neighborhood. And bottom-up planning is really the way to do it, with one caveat: You’ve got to give people who are not necessarily experts, the tools and frameworks of experts. Call it expert systems. Let me give you an example. Earlier this year we received a grant from Autodesk and the Silicon Valley Foundation to make these high tech computer models of neighborhoods, called Digital City Models. But we’re doing it with local teenagers from the Red Hook Houses. You see, for a community, unless you do it yourself, it’s just a bunch of experts coming in and telling you what to do. So we’re teaching these students how to fly the drones, how to recap Lidar and Phodar data, and how to make the digital city maps. It’s high-tech, but in essence, we are showing how a community can make a self-portrait.
So is the goal a planning document that you present as an alternative vision for Red Hook?
Though we make plans, the goal is not a planning document The goal is change. And change on our terms.
Featured image courtesy of Noah Phillips and the Red Hook Star.