An exhibition of images from historic regional plans on view inside grand central terminal

Surveying 100 Years of the Regional Plan Association

An exhibition shares a clear-eyed history of RPA, the powerful planning and development organization whose century of initiatives have shaped New York City and its surrounding tri-state area.

The Constant Future: A Century of the Regional Plan, an October exhibit at Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central Terminal is a succinct yet gripping display of civic dreams selected from the imagination of the Regional Plan Association (RPA), an independent non-profit that conducts research on the environment, land use, and good governance with the intention of promoting ideas that improve economic health, environmental resiliency, and quality of life in the New York metropolitan area. The occasion is the organization’s centennial, and the show is a testament to its powerful role in developing the tri-state region. Not all of its ideas have been good, but the city owes a debt to the group’s long-term view.

The Regional Plan Association‘s métier has been thinking big. Its ambit spans three states, 22 counties, and nearly 500 jurisdictions, and achieving accord between these is far easier said than done.

“The vast majority of residents of New York City and the region have never heard of RPA. We wanted to change that.”

Tom Wright, President of the Regional Plan Association

The exhibition designed by James Sanders provides an extremely strong overview of RPA’s many encouragements, with its four principal plans (1929, 1968, 1996, and 2017—you can read them all online) and interstitial advice deftly excerpted and accentuated by a range of other context and commentary. A “Regional Plan Association exhibit” is not the sort of thing you associate with aesthetic appeal but a variety of elements—particularly Jules Guérin and Francis Swales City Beautiful dreams from the first report and Barbara Towery’s crisp midcentury graphics from the second—lend plenty of appeal. Video elements, often fluff in exhibits, here include fascinating excerpts from mid 1973s Emmy-winning documentaries about the RPA, narrated by Eli Wallach, Ruby Dee, and Cliff Robertson

 Images from the 2017 regional plan on a poster at an exhibition inside Grand Central Terminal

Tom Wright, president of RPA explained in conversation that the show is the product of years of work contemplating what from their “treasure trove” of content might be fit to display, a task well-achieved. Having some visual appeal that would attract passersby was key. “If you’re an urban planner, a transportation planner, an architect, or a real estate developer, you’ve heard about us. But the vast majority of residents of New York City and the region have never heard of RPA. We wanted to change that.”

The exhibit is entirely transparent about past RPA misdeeds: highway construction mania, sprawl-encouragement, and more. Wright noted that the RPA helped write iniquitous codes for numerous suburban towns in early decades. “Those zoning codes were segregationist and racist at their very core, and I’m not going to hide that. I’m not going to pretend that didn’t happen. We’re now trying to undo that legacy in many ways, and the only honest thing to do is to recognize it.”

The number of bad ideas implemented is minor compared to the number of sound ideas that never came to pass. Regional Plans are always about delayed gratification; this is intrinsically frustrating. Wall text quotes Robert Benchley, “What do I care about ‘belt lines and circumferential routes’ to be ready in 1965? What do I care about 1965 anyway? I am just a butterfly, living in the present, and I want some service now.” That mild a timetable seems Panglossian compared to the delays of today, when civic plans aren’t things that your children might get to enjoy but that your grandchildren probably won’t.

Visitors explore exhibitions dedicated to the Regional Plan Association

There are extravagant schemes within the 1st Regional Plan, for grand civic complexes in Mott Haven and Carl Schurz Park, but the depressing thing is seeing far more functional and practical ideas that have yet to be even vaguely realized. The 1929 proposal for a circumferential trunk railroad has only recently crept to the status of partial consideration with the Triboro RX (if we’re lucky).

And yet there are visions achieved: Park schemes were realized, many other excellent general suggestions such as a park use for the High Line became reality. The 2nd Regional Plan’s focus on Jamaica Center development eventually did take off. Wright explained “We’ve had a wonderful partnership with the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation. The staff-member at RPA who wrote the Jamaica Center report for the 2nd Regional Plan founded the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation and ran it for a generation or two.”

Other ideas have borne fruit as well: “We were very active in the East Midtown rezoning, and we testified on behalf of One Vanderbilt; East Side Access is opening in just a couple of weeks. That was a huge priority for us in the Third Plan and we spent a lot of time trying to promote and revive that project.”

The exhibit is keen to make clear that they only suggest ideas; they are grateful for those who carry them out. Wright explained, “I don’t want to take credit for anyone else’s achievements. I stand in awe of those people who actually deliver those wonderful parks and many other things.”

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