Urban Reviewer Maps New York's Forgotten Master Plans
BY Sam Roudman | Thursday, June 19 2014
Cities are capable of forgetting just like people are. Take the city of New York, where for decades vacant lots created through destructive, federally funded Urban Renewal Plans sat unused, despite being earmarked for open space or private development. A couple years ago 596 Acres, a nonprofit that builds tools to help people access public land, found a couple unused lots that fit this description in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Edgemere in Queens. Once they knew the lots could be turned into useful space, getting the city and the local communities involved was relatively easy, according to 596 Acres' executive director Paula Segal. But it was far from a comprehensive strategy for all the city's vacant but potentially useful land.
"We thought well wouldn’t it be great if we had a way to find in a mass way–instead of somebody happening to mention it to us–where all of the planned open spaces were that were vacant lots?"
Two years, and a sizable number of volunteer hours later, that way exists in the form of Urban Reviewer. The site maps out 155 of the city's urban renewal plans, reaching all the way back to the 1952. It's searchable by specific plan, year, and the supposed use of an area, down to the block. Perfect for 596 Acres' purposes, it provides a map overlaying public vacant lots with places that were planned for use as open space.
Gathering the data for the project was a challenge. "The plans themselves are scattered, and there’s no centralized archive," says Segal. Most were found in the Department of Housing Preservation & Development via freedom of information request. 596 Acres was unable to pay the 25 cents a page printing fee, so teams of volunteers studied printed copies of the plans, taking down the specific lots listed.
Ironically, (although maybe not surprisingly) having information on potential open spaces for city land at HPD assured its uselessness.
"It’s been trapped in the wrong agency," says Segal of the information in the plans. "[HPD] is not going to build useful open space for the public. They're going to try to build housing or preserve it."
Now that the information is freed, she hopes to make use of it. "Without some prodding from the outside, which is one of the things that we’re good at doing," says Segal, "these will remain vacant lots."