Comparing Legacies: Robert Moses and Michael Bloomberg

By Gabe Pressman
|  Tuesday, Apr 13, 2010  |  Updated 7:45 PM EDT
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Comparing Legacies: Robert Moses and Michael Bloomberg

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Robert Moses, Michael Bloomberg

City Hall has unveiled a plan to develop 87 acres of Governor’s Island as a public park and, as the New York Times points out, "it would be a major contribution to the physical legacy of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration."

Each of the nine mayors I have covered has been concerned about how history will deal with his years in office. Bloomberg is no exception. And parks and playgrounds are among the most enduring examples of any Mayor’s work.

Of course, it’s doubtful that any mayor or governor or commissioner can ever duplicate the work that Robert Moses accomplished back in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. The man known as the "Master Builder" managed to win the backing of governors and mayors to build a stupendous number of parks, playgrounds, highways, housing projects, beaches.

From 1934, in the depths of the Depression, to the 1960s, Moses was able to build such projects as Riverside, Flushing Meadows and Corona Parks. Under his leadership park land in the city more than doubled to about 35,000 acres. He also built 658 playgrounds, 17 miles of beach, zoos, recreation centers and ball fields.

I covered Robert Moses and was bowled over by the sheer number of projects he created in his glory days. Like Bloomberg, Moses had a touch of arrogance. He showed great affection, though, to friends and staff. But Moses, unlike Bloomberg, didn’t have a lot of money. Moses relied on his political guile to manipulate mayors and governors to provide money for his massive public works projects, including a network of highways and such grand achievements as Jones Beach.

His legacy includes: the building of the United Nations, Lincoln Center, the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, the Triborough Bridge and other East River bridges, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and billions of dollars in low and middle income housing projects.

And now Bloomberg, in his third term, is working on a park legacy of his own. During his campaign last year, Bloomberg said proudly: "We are in the middle of our largest parks expansion since the 1930s. In the last eight years we have added more than 500 acres of new parkland to the city."

In recent weeks, the Mayor and Governor Paterson opened the first section of Brooklyn Bridge Park along the Brooklyn waterfront. The Mayor also paved the way for the opening of the High Line park. And, now, the Governors Island project.

Under the deal struck with the state, the city takes control of the island and will develop a 2.2 mile-long promenade along the waterfront. The city has committed 41 million dollars to the first phase of this development. A new ferry landing will be built at the north end of the island.

A Times architectural critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff, describes the project as involving the creation of a "hammock grove," a grotto-like shelter, playing fields and marshlands. The critic says it will be a shift in the character of the city’s park system "as revolutionary as Moses’ early public works projects or Frederick Lee Olmstead and Calvert Vaux’ Central Park."

I asked Ray Horton, a business professor at Columbia who for years was the city’s fiscal watchdog at the Citizens Budget Commission: At a time of fiscal troubles, is it prudent to embark on a park project that will undoubtedly run into many millions of dollars in the years ahead?

He replied: "The city is short of money but this seems like a fire sale. If you acquire a valuable piece of property for virtually nothing, it seems like a good deal."

The federal government "sold" Governors Island to the city and state for one dollar back in 2003. Now the city has control. But as architectural expert Ouroussoff says, the city’s preliminary plans to move ahead with a promenade and a park "offers reassuring evidence that even in difficult times it is possible to get the tricky balance between public good and private interests right---or at least right enough."

The Mayor deserves credit for thinking positively about the city’s park system -- and planning for what could be a beautiful new recreational area just off Manhattan’s southern shore.

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