Megamall on the Hudson: Planning, Wal-Mart and Grassroots Resistance

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9781553698555: Megamall on the Hudson: Planning, Wal-Mart and Grassroots Resistance

A detailed case study of one community's efforts to use the environmental assessment process to oppose a big-box megamall. Analysis of requirements and tactics at each process stage and of the major obstacles to grassroots participation in this process and in regulatory politics and liberal democracy generally.

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About the Author:

David Porter studied political science, sociology and economics at Columbia University where he received his Ph.D. He has taught at colleges in Brooklyn, Montreal, and Maryland and for two decades at Empire State College of the State University of New York. Over four decades, he has investigated and written on a variety of grassroots contexts of community participatory empowerment, historically and in the present, in the U.S. and abroad. Chester L. Mirsky received his J.D. at New York Law School and is Professor Emeritus of Clinical Law at New York University School of Law. He has researched and written extensively about historical socio-legal contexts of the U.S. criminal justice system, focusing on the role of courtroom actors and the impact they have on the form of law and the method by which law is understood and employed on a day-to-day basis. He is co-author of a forthcoming book on the transformation of criminal justice in the nineteenth century. Both authors have actively participated in grassroots social justice movements from the 1960s to the present. They also have worked for over two decades closely monitoring, critiquing, and sometimes struggling against land-use decisions made by local officials in various towns in the upstate Hudson Valley of New York state.

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Following the introductory section of the book (Chapters One and Two), Part One provides the background readers need to comprehend the specific political arena in which the dynamics of larger theoretical import occur. Chapter Three thus introduces the specific local Ashbury context of recent decades in order to clarify its own political regime transitions, land-use planning practice, and the presence of alternative community voices. The chapter also presents the main forces behind the Wal-Mart project as well as their commercial development predecessors at the same site. It addresses the overall origin, purpose and statutory framework of the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), its relationship to the similar federal NEPA and other states' "little NEPAs," and general trends in its impact on land-use planning within New York state.

Part Two concerns agenda-making, the first stage of environmental impact assessment and the first stage in any public policy review. Chapter Four establishes the implicit and explicit political nature of this process, including basic ideological contestations, as the developer, town planning officials, the latter's consultants and the mobilized public all articulate and pressure for initial definitions of a proper environmental impact review and the role of the public within it. Chapter Five describes the specific agenda-setting arena of the scoping process, the first formal stage for assessment definitions once the decision is made for an environmental impact statement (EIS). Within this stage, the political stance of each actor becomes more explicit. Chapter Six examines the appropriation of scientific and technical discourse by the developer in advancing the merits of its project in a draft EIS. Chapter Seven explains how confrontation on the specific land-use policy at hand escalates to the point where the community movement must challenge the very legitimacy, by democratic and ethical criteria, of the existing local regime. Chapter Eight demonstrates how the voice of the grassroots public comes to be clearly articulated through both expert and lay discourse within the officially-legitimized context of the EIS public hearing.

Part Three explains the equally politicized stage in which specific environmental and economic impacts of the megamall proposal were researched and analyzed, following the official conclusion of the agenda-setting stage. Chapter Nine discusses the procedural standards followed by the planning board and continually contested by the activist public in order to establish a level playing field for fair consideration of substantive evidence presented. Chapter Ten describes critical substantive issues themselves in the realms of stormwater, water quality, traffic and economic impact, as well as the basis for alternative analytical methodologies and interpretations of actual impact significance. Chapter Eleven presents external non-impact review challenges to the project through tax-abatement policy, litigation, street demonstrations and the electoral arena, all employed by community activists to enhance their influence in the face of the flawed "participatory democratic" and biased EIS review.

Part Four sets forth the final stage of environmental impact review, in which the planning board came to determine the fate of the Wal-Mart megamall. Chapter Twelve describes how the planning board arrived at a summary of its own research of substantive impact issues in a "comments-responses" document. Chapter Thirteen articulates the politicized struggle within the planning board as demonstrated in alternative impact "findings" statements, as well as new efforts by activists to influence the process even at this late stage. Chapter Fourteen presents the final phase of procedural maneuvers and dramatic decisions to conclude the environmental impact review process, alongside the larger context of an electoral challenge to the existing local governing regime.

Part Five provides a more extensive theoretical framework within which to analyze the deeper political dynamics and significance of the case-study experience as well as their ultimate implications for American politics more generally. Chapter Fifteen follows major actors of the local struggle during ensuing months and years in order to help evaluate the deeper local impact of the overall environmental impact review process and ultimate decision. Chapter Sixteen identifies essential traits of progressive urban regimes and moderate participatory democracy and the implications of both for local participatory political culture. Chapter Seventeen employs this analytical framework to develop a deeper understanding of the dynamics and more basic political meanings of the case-study and larger SEQRA experience. On the basis of the two previous chapters, Chapter Eighteen critiques the limitations of the theoretical models of progressive urban regimes and moderate participatory democracy and suggests broader implications for the future of American politics.

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