The most lasting legacy of New York’s power broker is that it’s now impossible to build anything in the city.
As noted in a New York Times analysis of Amazon's cancellation of HQ2 on Valentines Day, "Amazon could have worked with the deal’s biggest champions, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, to push past the limited public hostility," writes Marc J. Dunkelman, a fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, and the author of “The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community."
However, even if a deal had been reached between the governor, the mayor, and Jeff Bezos, Dunkelman writes that "no amount of leverage is capable of overcoming resistance from a small star chamber in Albany known as the Public Authorities Control Board. Without unanimous support from the three voting members of the PACB, Amazon’s plan was dead in the water."
More specifically, Dunkelman points to an appointment to the board earlier this month.1
At a Moses retrospective organized more than a decade ago, Caro recalled that, all too frequently, people “of the real estate persuasion,” frustrated that red tape prevents too many developments from getting off the ground, would approach him at cocktail parties and ask: “Don't you think it's time for a new Robert Moses?” And Caro, thinking of Lillian Edelstein and the other residents of East Tremont, would say, “No.”
But even Moses could not work his will on New York City today. As forceful, persuasive, wily and prodigious as he was, Moses would still not have been able to overcome the resistance to the Amazon deal. That’s not because local residents are more forceful today. Like Cuomo, de Blasio and Jeff Bezos, Moses would have lost because he would not have had any leverage on the state senator who sat on the PACB. And that lone state senator had the single-handed power to kill the deal altogether. On this one issue, Gianaris’ “no” was more powerful than every “yes” standing behind the deal.
For those who see themselves as champions for ordinary people like Edelstein, that shift may be welcome. Moses’ mark often left a scar. But for policymakers—and particularly for progressives whose aim it is to use public power for the public good—the hurdles erected in his wake make the process of doing great things next to impossible. The scar tissue built over the past 50 years to prevent the second coming of Moses stops good projects as well as bad.
Amazon’s detractors had a range of legitimate concerns, and experts can argue about the merit of this particular deal. But Amazon isn’t packing up because of public resistance to too many tax breaks or a helipad. It’s leaving because, like in much of the country, the architecture of political power has changed. In ways Robert Moses could never have imagined, those with big dreams now suffer interminably from the absence of leverage. Moses’ final legacy is that he made it impossible to get things done.