Putting the Mega in Megaprojects: Megamen and Women (Ross, Pinsky, Yaro, Weisbrod) Debate Why Building Big Matters

Mega Times Square. (Getty)

According to notable English language scholar Homer Simpson, “mega” means “good.”However, the speakers and panelists at the Center for Urban Real Estate’s  conference on New York City megaprojects took a slightly more detailed approach when attempting to define the term.

“I think it’s scale,” said Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association. “I think it’s a project that’s large enough to essentially transform an entire district of the city.

“To me, what makes a project a megaproject is not to much the size of the project but the size of the impact,” said Seth Pinksy, president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation partially agreeing with Yaro.

Stephen Ross, Related Companies chief, weighed in as well, saying that he thought “The most important thing is it’s transformative.”

While they may have differed in their semantics, several of the morning’s speakers did agree on one thing: if New York City wants to remain economically competitive, continuing to plan and build megaprojects will be essential.

“New York is the quintessential 20th century city,” said Mr. Yaro. “I think we all want to see New York as the quintessential 21st century city.”

The event, which took place in Midtown’s McGraw-Hill Conference Center, placed New York City in an international context right from its outset. Columbia Sociology Professor Saskia Sassen, one of two keynote speakers, spent much of her opening remarks comparing various aspects of New York—such as population density and ease of doing business—not just to old rivals like Chicago and Los Angeles but also to newer international players like Mumbai and Sao Paolo.

Sassen also emphasized that, in the new global economy, what truly distinguished cities was what they did with their surroundings, rather than their surroundings themselves.

“You need a certain kind of standardized built environment to do finance,” she said. “But how it gets used? Radically different.”

Messrs. Yaro, Pinsky and Ross took the stage after Sassen to discuss some of the broader issues and challenges typically surrounding projects that can often last through several real estate and political environments before actually being completed. Common refrains included working with both public and private interests and trying to prioritize the long-term benefits of these projects over the short-term inconveniences.

In other words, megaprojects tend to involve a lot of loud and messy construction work, meaning they also tend to involve a lot of protests from people in the communities where they’re being built. But, according to the event’s panelists, it is generally in the city’s and the country’s best interest to persevere.

“We are underinvesting in our nation’s infrastructure, and these megaprojects, when it comes down to it, are all about investment in infrastructure,” said Mr. Pinsky, speaking in front of a slideshow of completed megaprojects from across the United States. “It’s important to say that not every megaproject and not every investment is a good project or a good investment, but not investing and not building is inevitably going to lead you to real trouble.”

The following panel discussed one of New York City’s more successful megaprojects from its recent past: transforming Times Square from a seedy hotbed of prostitution and crime into the clogged artery of slow moving tourists and oversized neon signs that has become every true New Yorker’s favorite part of the city.

When discussing the process of redeveloping Times Square, the panelists provided concrete examples of many of the issues the previous panel had raised, namely dealing with conflicts between public and private interests and working on a project that lasted through multiple different mayoral administrations. And their thoughts on the completed Times Square provided evidence for the previous panel’s support of perseverance as well.

“I would urge a cost-benefit analysis of the 42nd street project today,” said panelist Carl Weisbrod, academic chair of global development at New York University. “I am confident that it will turn out to be one of the, if not the single best investment the city and state of New York ever made in this city.”

“The city made money on this deal,” agreed panelist Gary Rosenberg, chairman of the real estate law firm Rosenberg and Estis.

The panelists all emphasized the importance of momentum when working on projects that can take as long as the redevelopment of Times Square. The second the project stops moving forward is the second completing it starts becoming less likely

“You can’t let inertia kill you because once you’re sitting there just doing nothing, you become the target for attack,” said Mr. Weisbrod. “It erodes and ultimately and frequently dies.”

If today’s event was any indication, the cost and length of megaprojects will not stop them from continuing to be an important part of New York City’s constantly changing landscape. But, as Mr. Yaro pointed out, trying to guess what exactly these projects will be and how they will change the city is virtually impossible.

In the late 19thCentury, he said, people believed that “the growth of London and New York was going to be constrained by our inability to get horse fodder in and horse manure out.

“Well,” he continued, “things changed.”

Putting the Mega in Megaprojects: Megamen and Women (Ross, Pinsky, Yaro, Weisbrod) Debate Why Building Big Matters