Why Megaprojects Aren’t the Answer

Why Megaprojects Aren’t the Answer


March 30, 2019



This paper is framed by a course entitled Mega-projects in Global Cities, taught by Adam Lubinsky of WXY Architecture at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation in the fall of 2018. The course sought to critically examine the shift of mega-projects provided by the public sector to a newer, neoliberal paradigm of privately funded mixed-use projects. The course also sought to examine how these projects will affect the global economy.  I argue that mega-projects of the last two decades, specifically the redevelopment of Yankee Stadium in New York City, and the San Francisco Giants-funded Mission Rock development, have not adequately addressed the shortcomings of large-scale projects of years past. I draw upon the works of urban theorists Robert Beauregard, Terry Nichols Clark, Susan Fainstein, Steve Graham, and Simon Marvin who have discussed the concentration of economic and cultural capital in urban areas, as well as the failures of public and private development to equitably distribute the resources that they seek to create.

Why modernism wasn’t the answer

Mega-projects in a Western context have shifted from publicly funded infrastructure projects, such as the creation of the Interstate Highway System under the Eisenhower administration, to a public-private mixed-use neighborhood development model, such as the anticipated Amazon HQ2 in Northern Virginia. The goals of these projects are distinctly of the eras in which they are built. Historic infrastructure projects tried to solve the problems of a rapidly urbanizing world by building infrastructure to connect growing metropolitan areas and provide utilities that would ultimately make cities more livable. In comparison, the new paradigm of mega-projects attempts to address the failures of publicly funded projects while creating new, highly branded places for people to work, play, and live.

The new paradigm of urban redevelopment cannot be evaluated without understanding the failures that necessitated their creation. In their book, Splintering Urbanism, urban theorists Steve Graham and Simon Marvin illustrate the mechanisms that attempted to create a standardized system of public urban infrastructure throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Metropolitan areas changed from highly centralized, compact nodes of activity that supported all social strata to discrete areas of industry, commerce, and housing for the working-class with outer-lying suburbs for the wealthy elite, it was thought that infrastructure had to expand to serve the sprawl that was created in that evolution. This expansion of public infrastructure needed to work across already established cities. Therefore, mid-century urban planners and designers latched onto a Western modernist system of “wider rationalities and ideals” that sought to be the solution to an increasingly complex web of urban activities; that drove home notions of “progress” away from informalities in hopes of creating “unitary, coherent, and emancipatory cities” (41). However, we find that the confluence of suburban sprawl, with the newfound ease of consumption created by these so-called rationalized ideals, gave way to the decentralization of public infrastructure rather than uniformity across municipalities. This is a phenomenon that Graham and Marvin describe as “urban fragmentation” (71).

Why private intervention isn’t the answer

Fragmentation and the inability to standardize public utilities such as mass transit were only a few of the causes that led to the disinvestment of dense urban areas. Decentralization was a result of the failure of government to address long-standing infrastructural problems. This gave rise to the idea that a city’s problems could only be rectified with the intervention of a private entity. For example, the neighborhood of Concourse in New York City was subjected to this line of thinking in the redevelopment of Yankee Stadium. The original Yankee Stadium, built in 1923, was an economic driver for the South Bronx, – an area of the city that traditionally consisted of low-income communities of color that were in desperate need of quality green open space. Scholar Susan Fainstein describes the public-private development process of the new Yankee Stadium in her book The Just City. The respective community benefits agreements, as well as the dynamics between New York City government and the private stakeholders involved in the process are detailed in her chapter about New York City. In the original stadium’s decline, team executives drafted up plans to build a new stadium in the Bronx, but they threatened to move Yankees and their stadium, “unless the city generously subsidized a new facility” (12).   In the end, both state and local government offered deep subsidies totaling over $520 million of exemptions.

In return, the local government asked for funding to improve local parks, a hiring mechanism for construction, and part and full-time employment once the new Stadium was finished. The state government asked for transportation and parking facility improvements. These failures of government to provide quality open space and adequate public transportation in the Bronx represents a schema in which the private market takes advantage of the lack of public funding to fill the gaps through private redevelopment.

Fainstein, in her book The City Builders, describes a similar climate in which property development in New York City adopts a public-private partnership model that has multiple purposes. In a typical redevelopment model, Fainstein argues that businesses receive the direct subsidies, while, “taxpayers at large have borne the costs [of development] and received benefits only as they have trickled down” (5). A glaring critique of the community benefits agreement drafted up for the new Yankee Stadium was that it did not directly involve community input. Though community coalitions had been formed and had tried to steer the physical design of the space, the final draft of the agreement only included Yankee executives and Bronx elected officials at the city and state levels. Fainstein also notes that recent economic redevelopment projects are largely driven by the business interests and political clout of the private sector, which are supported by, “the elite and middle-class consumers.” (5) This model, however, tends to gloss over the displacement of working-class communities of color and small businesses owners who get relegated to transit-poor and economically slow area of the city. New Yankee Stadium was built over underutilized parkland, so there was little direct displacement in its construction. However, the community benefits agreement stipulated that local hiring and contracting for the construction of the Stadium would only equal 25 percent. If more— really, if any community members had been at the table, the benefits to the community of Concourse may have been more significant and more equitably distributed. But community benefits aren’t the focus of private development; oftentimes, they are just a tertiary positive outcome of it.  

An aerial view of the proposed site for San Francisco’s “Mission Rock” development, image by the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission

Why neoliberalism shouldn’t be the answer

Regardless of what stadia have truly offered in term of public benefits, their private owners have always been regarded as up-lifters of the economy, and their teams, hailed as providers of entertainment. Academic Terry Nichols Clark compiled a compendium titled The City as an Entertainment Machine, in which various authors describe the processes related to the evolution of cities as drivers of industry to epicenters of cultural capital. As previously mentioned, the mid-century attempt to rationalize and standardize infrastructure inadvertently made it easier for people to live further away from dense urban cities. In this paradigm, however, people still found themselves drawn to cities where long-standing cultural institutions, like the New York Yankees, had existed for decades. Cities, even in their decline, offered entertainment that could not have survived elsewhere by virtue of density and their intrinsic magnetism for talent. Clark describes our almost innate draw to these institutions as inherent to the power of branding and our need to define ourselves through our patterns of consumption. In this way, sports teams tap into the tribalistic want to be around people who are similar. The cultural capital given to a city’s sports teams gives their leadership and management valuable bargaining chips that, as evidenced by millions of dollars of exemptions granted to the Yankees just for staying in place, can result in a great deal for private developers.

Similarly, in San Francisco, a reignited interest in vibrant mixed-use neighborhoods, as well as a low supply of affordable housing, created a perfect storm for the San Francisco Giants to redevelop their underused parking lot into a mixed-used mega-project called Mission Rock. Scholars Robert Beauregard and Anne Halia observe storms such as this by analyzing the behavior of post-industrial cities in their article “The Unavoidable Incompleteness of the City”. As urban manufacturing in the United States declined, cities were left with large tracts of derelict industrially-zoned land, often along waterfronts. In an effort to draw populations back from suburbia, emptied industrial areas became hotbeds for “consumption-oriented” activities. AT&T Park, the stadium for the Giants, was built in this type of waterfront edge and became a cog in the entertainment machine, and ultimately in the identity of San Francisco.

Mission Rock’s vision of transforming a parking lot into a vibrant neighborhood is telling of what kind of city San Francisco wants to be – a post-industrial city with a beloved sports team whose home stadium can be energized by a mixed-use, mixed-income development. Unlike the Yankee Stadium redevelopment project, Mission Rock does not include plans for a new stadium. Instead, it seeks to create a 21st-century lifestyle of “Work, Play, Live” anchored by the presence of the San Francisco Giants. Such vibrancy and sports fanaticism is depicted in the glossy renderings of this project. The scale of buildings and their relationship to one another harkens back to the compact, walkable cities of yore that slowly lost their luster in the wake of suburbia.

The proposed community benefits agreement is also more substantial than that of the New York Yankees. One could argue that its most significant public benefits are the development of 1500 affordable housing units, 40 percent of which are going to households between 45 percent and 150 percent of the area median income, calculated to be $52 – $170 thousand for a family of four. But it’s easy to refute that the context of affordability may not apply to residents that would genuinely benefit from deeply affordable housing if they have not already been displaced to exurban areas.

However, there will also be substantial public realm improvements, including transit connections to the existing Embarcadero streetcar system, streetscape improvements along the commercial corridor on the west end of the project site, and a new storm resilient public promenade located the water’s edge on the east. Mission Rock is unique in that it is a part of a larger mega-project to rehabilitate Mission Bay in San Francisco, so connections to legacy infrastructure are very minimal. It’s also unique in that unlike many mega-projects of this scale, it had a relatively easy public review process whose only major point of contention between the public, the developers, and city government was in regards to the proposed heights of commercial towers on the site.

So then, what is the answer?

Gone are the days where a city’s physical and economic development is almost completely driven by the actions of government. With new players from the private market with political clout and their ability to provide public infrastructure without red tape, the latest paradigm of mega-projects appears to be an enticing one. However, projects like new Yankee Stadium and Mission Rock rely on what is essentially tabula rasa development, a condition that is becoming more and more scarce in these global cities. Therefore, as available space shrinks, so does the ability of the government to leverage their cultural capital to draw privately funded mixed-use mega-projects that may help fix problems with legacy infrastructure.  But ultimately, with a track record of circumventing public opinion on decisions that will affect everyone and their built environment, the public-private mega-project cannot be the only answer to the changing nature of our cities. Really, only time will tell what paradigms of development can be sustainable, but it’s important to look to the failures and successes of past to better inform decisions for the future.

Who had some answers

Many thanks to my friends Tyrene Calvesbert, Laura Postarini, and Francis Yu for helping me edit and make sense of this work. Couldn’t have done it without you all!

Kevin Borja is an M.S. in Urban Planning Candidate at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation

Works Cited

Beauregard, Robert and Anne Haila. (1997) “The Unavoidable Incompleteness of the City,” American Behavioral Scientist, 41(3): 327-341.

Clark, T. N. (2011). The City as an Entertainment Machine. Lanham, Md: Lexington Books. Chapter 12: Amenities Drive Urban Growth: A New Paradigm and Policy Linkages, pp. 291- 322.

Fainstein, Susan. The City Builders: Property Development in New York and London, 1980-2000. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas, 2001. Chapter 1 pp 1-26.

Fainstein, Susan. The Just City. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 2010. Chapter 2 pp 57-86.

Graham, Steve and Simon Marvin. Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities, and the Urban Condition. Routledge & Kegen Paul, 2001.

San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. Application Summary: “Mission Rock” Mixed-Use Development.” June 2018. Retrieved from http://www.bcdc.ca.gov/cm/2018/0621MissionRock2017-004-00.pdf

Wolf-Powers, Laura, “Community Benefits Agreements and Local Government: A Review of Recent Evidence.” Journal of the American Planning Association. Chicago, Spring 2010.

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