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A Sustainability Test at Willets Point


Mayor Michael Bloomberg called it “New York City’s next great neighborhood,” the city’s “first green community,” and an “integral part” of his long-range sustainability plan, plaNYC2030. He was talking about Willets Point, a polluted 160-acre industrial area between Shea Stadium and Flushing that the city hopes to redevelop.

But will the “new” Willets Point really be all of those good things? In the pursuit of “jobs and housing,” will anyone check to see if the new development is really sustainable?

Greening the '˜Iron Triangle’

The city’s idea is to put 5,500 housing units, a hotel and convention center, a million square feet of retail and 500,000 square feet of office space in an area that how has 225 businesses and employs some 1,800 workers. The Iron Triangle, as Willets Point is often called, has a large concentration of auto repair and service businesses, the largest distributor of Indian foods in the U.S., and several waste transfer facilities. A section of the area lacks public sewers, which the city has neglected to install despite repeated requests by business owners.

The claim that the Willets Point plan will be green rests on the promise that the existing contaminated land will be cleaned up, the new community will be transit-oriented because it’s on the Number 7 line, and maximum use will be made of energy efficient and other environmentally friendly building technologies. But since this is being sold as a “green and clean” model for New York City, this is the time to ask some hard questions.

The 10 Questions

Green Auto Repair:: Could the city do more to “green” the existing auto repair shops, rather than simply closing them down or pushing them out? If the plan goes through, hundreds of mechanics in Willets Point will be forced to operate in low-tech storefronts and neighborhoods where the most logical location for dumping crank case oil is the city’s sewer system. Instead, the city could create an auto center using the latest pollution-prevention technology. This could sustain the livelihoods of area workers instead of threatening them.

Who Benefits?:: Sustainability and green sound nice, but the question is always what and who gets sustained? The Willets Point proposal seems to do a pretty good job at sustaining real estate development in Queens. The city’s Economic Development Corporation has been negotiating the plan with big developers whose main commitment is to sustain their investors’ returns.

Clean Up or Clean Out?: Why does the whole area have to be cleared before environmental hazards can be eliminated? This sets an unfortunate precedent for cleaning up contaminated areas: You have to wipe everything out and start from scratch. Examples of remediation that don’t require massive relocation are plentiful.

Economic Effects: Sustainability should mean sustaining the economic livelihoods of people as well as preserving the environment. But under this plan, the thriving local economy in some immigrant communities in Queens could be overwhelmed by megaprojects and their corporate tenants.

The Future of Businesses:The city promises to offer job training, counseling, English language classes, legal and other services to workers who would be displaced by the Willets Point development. Business owners will be bought out. But even with such assistance, the many workers and businesses who have been in Willets Point for decades and even for generations, have created networks of clients and other businesses that would be difficult to rebuild if everyone is scattered. And a number of the businesses have already sold their land to speculators, so they won’t really reap the full benefits. One of the canons of sustainability is preservation and strengthening of existing economic and social networks.

Living with the Jets: Is this the right place to put housing? Willets Point is directly in the flight path of LaGuardia airport and bordered by highways. If you think the planes are annoying during Mets games, imagine living there. To minimize the irritation to residents in such cases, developers generally install double-paned windows and construct fully climatized buildings, but this means people are stuck inside with their windows closed to keep out the noise and contamination. This hardly seems consistent with a green community.

Increased Congestion: How much parking will there be in and around this “transit-oriented development?” This phrase “transit-oriented development” can be used to sell just about any project in New York City which, after all, has subways and buses everywhere. But as is the case with Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, many projects do not call for any additional transit capacity, so the development invariably means more crowded trains and buses – and more people opting to drive. The Number 7 subway line is already over capacity at peak hours and platform crowding is alarming. With climbing ticket prices, more and more Mets fans will be come to the game in with their SUVs. And since Willets Point is planned as a regional “destination,” its economic success will rely on drawing suburbanites who are less likely to use mass transit. At best, the area would be a bigger park-and-ride hub for suburbanites than it already is and the added traffic will further clog Queens' highways.

What about Corona? In his announcement the mayor mentioned the downtown Flushing plan and the city’s commitment to promote development in Flushing. But Willets Point is right next door to Corona, one of the city’s largest and most diverse Latino neighborhoods. It looks like the new residential enclave will be walled off from Corona, its retailers will tap stadium and convention business, and the project will have little spillover effect. Bloomberg may have had tacos in Mexico City, but will anyone check out Corona when they go shopping or to a Mets game in Willets Point?

Whose Parks? The city plan puts a park in the dead center of the new development. This “public” space will effectively be a backyard for the new tenants, walled off and disconnected from Flushing Meadows Corona Park and the Corona neighborhood.

Green and Grand or Blean and Bare: It will probably be another year before Willets Point gets through the city’s land use review process, Cleanup and development will undoubtedly take at least another five to 10 years. Changing economic conditions and future mayoral administrations could leave the project to languish or die, letting a once-active business district lie fallow for many more decades.

The Big Picture:: This all leads to the final question. Are megaprojects, like the one planned for Willets Point, consistent with the vision of sustainable development. Or would more modest efforts, aimed at nurturing existing neighborhoods like Corona, be more sustainable and cost-effective?

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning. 

Making Growth Work for All New Yorkers


While plaNYC is extraordinary in its ambition, it misses a vital opportunity to make New York a truly sustainable city - one that harnesses growth and public investment to generate jobs that pay a living wage and allows everyone to participate in our economy.

The plan will revitalize the city's infrastructure, reduce pollution and build better transportation. It will generate new opportunities for businesses and contractors. And it will require thousands of workers to dig the new parks and tunnels, install energy conserving equipment in buildings, plant green streets to capture storm water, clean up brownfields, and do scores of other heavy lifts.

But unless this vision includes an unerring focus on creating good jobs and training a new generation of skilled workers, the city's future growth will not benefit all communities. Wages have stagnated over the past five years, while the cost of living has shot up 15 percent. Almost one in five New Yorkers, including many who work, lives in poverty. Too often, private developers and large corporations receive generous subsidy and incentive packages but create mostly low-wage jobs, or worse, actually cut jobs over time. And too often, development proceeds behind closed doors, without meaningful community involvement or attention to the public interest.

In a city that grows more and more unequal, we must do a better job of sharing both the prosperity and the burdens that growth brings.

City-sponsored economic development, including the initiatives laid out in plaNYC, can help reverse these trends. For example, tax dollars spent for economic development can be tied to creating decent jobs, with wages, benefits and career ladders that help families thrive. The many environmental initiatives can generate skilled "green-collar" jobs that pay living wages. And the city can strengthen the business community by looking beyond large corporations, to helping manufacturers and small businesses struggling with rising rents.

There is also room for more transparency and accountability to local communities. We should track the number and quality of jobs created to better understand who benefits from the city's investments and who doesn't. We should channel growth to the people and places where opportunity is needed, not only where it is convenient. And we should target new training programs to build opportunity in low-income and immigrant communities.

One of the last stops of the plaNYC 2030 listening tour was Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, where our organizations and 50 other community, labor, and religious groups met with the mayor's staff to discuss the next 25 years. We commend them for the meeting.

But one of the key messages to emerge from that forum needs to be repeated again and again: plaNYC will not meet the challenges of growth unless it directly addresses the need for living wage jobs that can sustain working families.

The mayor ended his Earth Day speech by promising to "swing for the fences." If plaNYC's public investment strategies are linked to commitments to build a new base of good jobs, Bloomberg will indeed have hit the ball out of the park.

Annette Bernhardt is deputy director of the Justice Project at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Adrianne Shropshire is executive director of New York Jobs with Justice.

 

What plaNYC Does Not Do


Let's give the mayor credit for all the good ideas in his visionary 2030 plan - and not just when it comes to transportation. The Open Space section of the plan also has important recommendations. One million new trees in 10 years will clean our air and waterways, improve our health and cool our sidewalks, schoolyards and parkland. The GreenStreets program has helped us imagine our city as a greener place. It will be expanded with new "plazas" in some neighborhoods. A number of long neglected city parks will see funding and finally be usable. Parking lots will be required to plant shade trees.

But a "visionary" document that adds a million people to New York with no significant new parkland is unacceptable. New York has less than half the parkland per capita of most other U.S. cities, and our parks are far more crowded because so many of us live in high-rise buildings with no backyards. The report notes that New York grew in population so quickly that neighborhoods like Flatbush (and many others) developed without public space, then it suggests we place what remains of public land in the hands of developers because we need more housing.

Yes, we need more affordable housing. But we also need a public waterfront with token additions of housing, not massive rows of skyscrapers or big-box strip malls with token private esplanades. Our waterfront and our few regional parks are the lungs of our city, which give us places to go for rejuvenation and physical activity. Housing should be built inland, where the subways are. When railroad yards are decked for housing, as the report recommends, 50 percent of the deck should be added to public space. Many of our subway and railyards are in neighborhoods that are significantly underserved by parkland. With good planning, we can have housing and provide a healthy environment.

The report does not mention community gardening. Opportunities for gardening should be increased in our city. Any food grown here does not have to be shipped to New Yorkers by truck. Gardening is a superb physical activity, which can also keep New Yorkers mentally healthy. Everyone who wants a garden should have one whether the goal is food or urban beautification.

New York's visionary 350-mile Greenways system should be extended and quickly completed. New York and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have worked to get greenways on the ground, but there has been much administrative foot dragging. Finishing our greenways by 2030 would have been a great goal for a more sustainable city.

Bloomberg, who noted that no one has ever called him a tree-hugger, has set the bar by calling for a "greener greater New York." If recommendations of PlaNYC are implemented, our waterways will be cleaner and we will have more opportunities for swimming and boating. We will drive less and have a better transit system. New buildings will use less energy. Land will be purchased upstate to protect our drinking water supply. Our streets will more often be tree-lined and some long neglected parkland will be made more useful.

No doubt well-funded lobbies will be working to knock the bar down as they already have by getting City Council to limit the number of pollution-free pedicabs on our streets. It is now our job to take the opposite tack and to get this mayor and his successors to raise the bar, not lower it.

Dave Lutz is the executive director of Neighborhood Open Space Coalition, which works for a healthier, greener city.

 

Developing Brownfields The Right Way


Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to build on an estimated 7,600 acres of contaminated land, known as brownfields, will eliminate health hazards that plague poor neighborhoods and communities of color and create space for desperately needed housing. The mayor's plan is visionary, courageous and insightful, and the implementation plan includes provisions that empowers residents and community based organizations and directs funds where they are most needed.

A Transparent Process

A dozen groups, including New Partners in Community Revitalization has lobbied the city to create a centralized office focused on redeveloping city brownfield sites. The mayor included such an office in his plan, but it now needs the authority, staff and funding to develop and implement his agenda. Moving forward, the office will also need to ensure that the projects it assists have emerged from a community planning effort or have support of the local community. And any project that seeks city help to develop a brownfield must demonstrate that their projects are consistent with the city's sustainability goals.

Duel Role

The primary focus of the city's new Office of Environmental Remediation is to advance the redevelopment of the city's brownfield sites, but it will also be charged with regulatory oversight. When the same agency that develops a project also has the responsibility for regulating it, an inherent conflict arises. To avoid that, the new office will needed to develop policies and procedures and hire the right personnel to assure a user-friendly program while achieving regulatory goals.

Making the Best Use of Funds

The mayor announced that the city will provide $15 million for a public-private revolving loan fund to finance remediation and related costs. But it is not clear how the city will get these dollars into specific projects. The city government should maximize its funds by leveraging private dollars for remediation through partnerships with community lending institutions such as NY Metro Brownfields Redevelopment Fund Program, which uses federal and city funds to credit enhance remediation loans.

Environmental Insurance

The mayor also announced a $10 million investment for an environmental insurance initiative, which will be important for developers of affordable housing. Because of the scope of the overall development, the city will be in an excellent position to negotiate reasonably priced environmental insurance policies (even for small sites), with few or no exclusions.

A Fight in Albany?

The Bloomberg administration is asking the state to give the city regulatory authority for cleanup oversight. This could be tough. State enforcement laws create the liability so it is the state that has the authority to provide liability relief. Delegating that authority to the city would be unprecedented, so such a change would likely take a long time. Therefore, the city needs to focus on getting the state to immediately fix the problems with its Brownfield Cleanup Program, so that contaminated historic fill sites (sites contaminated with debris or waste from commercial or industrial processes that was then mixed with soil to build up areas for development) are no longer excluded. This exlcusion provision disproportionately affects New York City.

Also on the mayor's to-do-list in Albany is fixing the state's Brownfield Opportunity Area program. The state government must release the funds promised for local planning for brownfield sites. These funds have been held up for years because two agencies, the Department of State and the Department of Environmental Conservation, have to sign off on every detail and every step of an already long and demanding process.

The legislature and the governor understand the need to fix this, and there seems to be agreement that the state's planning agency, the Department of State, should be solely responsible for this program. Yet, it is still unclear whether Albany will act to fix this in the few weeks before the legislative session ends.

Working with Private Property Owners

The mayor has also called for new incentives to encourage private property owners to participate in the state brownfield planning program.

One way to achieve this is to grant the existing eight percent increase in brownfield tax credits only to projects that built in a way consistent with plans that emerge from the state's Brownfield Opportunity Area program. If the project is not consistent, it would not receive any tax credits. Beyond asking the state to create incentives, the city should use its own resources to encourage private property owners to participate in brownfield planning and development and to take a strong role in improving these once blighted areas of our city.

Jody Kass and Mathy Stanislaus are co-directors of New Partners for Community Revitalization, a NYC-based nonprofit working to revitalize low and moderate income neighborhoods through brownfields reclamation.

 

Building In The Wrong Places


The 2030 plan is a mixture of good and bad. The most problematic proposals would let the city continue to subsidize development in waterways and floodplains, harming irreplaceable marine habitats in the waters around the city.

This policy will make the city more vulnerable to the rising sea levels, more violent windstorms, severe storm surges and flooding that the plan acknowledges are coming with climate change. The city is overdue for a hurricane like Katrina. When it comes, as many as 3 million people may have to be evacuated to shelters, the plan says.

Retreat from the Coast?

If New York wants to be a model for other cities and for sustainable development around the globe, it needs to limit subsidies for sewers and other infrastructure to support development in flood-prone areas, and end subsidies almost entirely for construction in or on the waters around the city. Climate scientists refer to such policies as a "retreat from the coast." These sensible measures are completely missing from the plan.

PlaNYC proposals for protecting New Yorkers from looming storm and flooding threats are weak or counterproductive. Having the city planning department, which advocates waterfront development, continue updating the Federal Emergency Management Agency's floodplain maps will do no good if the information is unreliable, if citizens can't get it or use it easily, or if officials ignore it in budget decisions. PlaNYC's proposal to complete the city's application to FEMA for discounted flood insurance could just create incentives for development in floodplains, putting people in harm's way.

Building out into the water is even riskier than building in upland floodplains--and far more environmentally destructive. The waters around the city provide invaluable habitat for an astonishing variety of species. Habitat loss and destruction is the single most important factor in declining global fisheries, and a recent study warned that worldwide fisheries stocks will collapse by 2048 unless the way we use aquatic resources changes. With fisheries the most important source of essential protein for the world's malnourished populations, we need to halt all possible in-water construction. The great Hudson River system (including waters around the city) is one of the most important contributors to East Coast fisheries. Its natural ecosystems can sustain and renew themselves forever--but only if public officials leave aquatic habitats alone.

When a Park Is Not A Park

The plan pledges to promote parks, recreation and waterfront access and revitalization. But the administration has used this same rhetoric before to cloak its support for misplaced development and other habitat-threatening ventures on and in the water. New water and sewer infrastructure, paid for with skyrocketing ratepayers' fees, may be extended out into the water to serve the catering halls, sports complexes and multiplexes proposed as part of the so-called Hudson River Park project. PlaNYC's proposed mini-power plants and new brownfields programs could be used to subsidize this kind of misplaced, non-water-dependent development in the water as well. The way plaNYC mischaracterizes the 1972 Clean Water Act to support using public waterways for "recreation" is especially disturbing, since football fields, stadiums and huge playing fields that don't need to be in the water could be sold as "recreation."

PlaNYC's unexamined premise is that the City must grow by nearly a million people by 2030. This is a questionable assumption for a coastal city built primarily on islands, and especially for Manhattan, which is nearly impossible to evacuate in catastrophes. New York's top public spending priority should be making the city safer and better for all the people who live and work here already--maintaining an unparalleled existing mass transit system in good repair; keeping its superb stock of existing housing affordable; reducing class size until every child can read. Using taxpayers,' ratepayers,' straphangers' or drivers' money to expand the city at its periphery for a wealthy few would be gross misallocation of public resources--both natural resources and limited public funds.

Marcy Benstock is director of the Clean Air Campaign.

 

Waterfront Development or Neighborhood Displacement?


Mayor Bloomberg's 2030 Plan touts the Williamsburg-Greenpoint rezoning and waterfront development as a shining example to be followed elsewhere in the city. But a closer look will show that what's happening there is the displacement of affordable housing and the people who live in that housing. I have seen first hand these devastating effects and would not want to see them in other neighborhoods.

One huge problem is that the new "affordable housing" to be built is calculated using the citywide Area Median Income, which is much higher than Brooklyn's median income. The median income for a family of four is $70,900, and 80 percent of that is considered low income. Yet in Williamsburg-Greenpoint, the median income is close to $30,000, and with average wages of under $14 an hour most renters cannot afford the units the city considers affordable.

The city's inclusionary zoning, which gives developers the option of adding floor area if they include "affordable" housing units, is not working to solve this problem. We see mostly luxury development where affordable homes and businesses once stood. In areas adjacent to the waterfront, a lot of new apartments are being built, most of them with no affordable units. Such developments are destroying low-income and working class neighborhoods that have been home to generations of working people and immigrants.

The surge of new luxury units is changing the demographics of this and other less affluent communities and forcing people to move. The new wealthy residents have higher incomes, putting pressures on local retail outlets to change what they offer and how much they charge. Instead of hardware stores, affordable supermarkets and laundromats, the commercial core changes to noisier bars, expensive restaurants, boutique food markets and so on. Stores offering less expensive goods can no longer pay the cost per square foot to rent in the gentrified neighborhood.

While some affordable homes are to be built, there is a larger net loss of affordable housing in the surrounding areas as real estate values and rents rise. With the loss of rent protections and the lack of enforcement, neighborhoods are being torn apart.

Contrary to the mayor's plan, private developers do not need to hefty tax incentives to build where the most new homes rent or sell at the market rate. But then maybe the mayor doesn't think anything can be done about rising housing costs? As he said during the November 1, 2005 mayoral debate, "This is an expensive city; it always has been, probably always will be."

Phil DePaolo is president of the New York Community Council.

 

Planning for a Bigger, Greener City


On April 22 - the 27th observance of Earth Day-Mayor Michael Bloomberg went to the Museum of Natural History to unveil what his administration has dubbed plaNYC. Predicting that the city could add 1 million more residents by 2030, the plan says such a boom, while a sign of economic health and vitality, could threaten the city's aging facilities, infrastructure and environment.

With that in mind, the mayor and his staff set out 127 specific proposals on land use, water supply and quality, transportation, energy, air quality and reducing greenhouse gases. The ideas range from the specific - opening more city playgrounds after hours, for one - to grander schemes, such as using "creative financing" to boost use of solar power in the city. The proposal to charge an $8 fee for motorists driving into part of Manhattan on weekdays garnered the most attention and opposition, but the mayor's office said other proposals, particularly in the area of energy use, could have an even greater effect on the city.

This week we offer several commentaries on the process that created the plan and its overall vision. This series of reactions launches Sustainability Watch, a joint project of Gotham Gazette and the Hunter College Center for Community Planning & Development. Next week, another group of experts will weigh in on specific aspects of the proposal, including congestion pricing, development of brownfields, creation of more green space and various ideas to save energy.

Sustainability Watch will try to keep alive the debates about what's good and not, look at what's missing, discuss how the plan is working and monitor the gaps between plan and practice. This is an opportunity for open public discussion about a range of city policies, and a first concerted attempt to tackle thorny environmental problems. As part of this, we urge you to comment on these articles and the mayor's plan through our message boards (attached to every article) or by emailing us at info at GothamGazette.com.

Searching for Land - and Finding It
By Julia Vitullo-Martin
Director. Center for Rethinking Development
With New York at risk of being a victims of its own success, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has set out a plan that develops the city's land to its fullest, from the far West Side to Sunnyside.

Growing Equality
By Joan Byron, Alyssa Katz and Brad Lander
Pratt Center for Community Development
The mayor's plan needs to be expanded to ensure that growth and sustainability do not bring more segregation and inequality as well.

Making a Great Plan Even Better
By Ron Shiffman
Professor, Pratt Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment
PlaNYC is the most important initiative undertaken by any mayor in decades but it could be even better - and fairer.

Too Many Consultants, Not Enough Community
By Tom Angotti
Director, Hunter College Center for Community Planning & Development
Unless the administration truly engages neighborhoods, civic groups, community organizations, the plan could become just one more City Hall laundry list.

How to Build Support
By Eve Baron
As it sets about implementing plaNYC 2030, the mayor's office should pay attention to those who have already been planning for the future in areas across the city.

Searching for Land - and Finding It

By Julia Vitullo-Martin

Wealthy, beautiful and safe, New York is at the top of its game right now. In the 30 years since the fiscal crisis pushed it to the verge of bankruptcy, New York transformed itself from a dangerous, dirty city of decayed buildings, shuttered storefronts, filthy parks, abandoned real estate and forlorn neighborhoods into the dominant world city. But nothing in this life stays the same, and New York's competitors, themselves world players, are lapping at its heels.

London, for one, is intent on reclaiming the greatest-city-on-earth crown that it held for most of the 19th and 20th centuries. And while London and New York share many strengths, they also share fundamental problems deriving from aging infrastructure - transit, water, sewerage, power, parks, schools -- designed decades ago for a smaller and far less mobile population. Further, both share problems springing from their huge success. Not only does it often seem that everyone on earth wants to live in either New York or London, from their sidewalks and streets, both cities look like everyone is already there.

The tremendous demand for residential, commercial and retail space in New York has overturned the city's old problem of abandonment while handing it a whole new set of problems. Land costs, already excessive, are heading ever upward. Construction costs are the highest in the country by far. Every site in the five boroughs now seems to have development potential, though not every site should necessarily be developed to the full extent that its zoning allows. Many sites are being developed beyond the capacity of the local infrastructure, particularly transit, but also schools, parks and sewers.

Economy and Environment

Supervising New York's phenomenal success is Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a former investment banker, who over the last year appraised his city's virtues and faults with a cold banker's eye and concluded that now is the time to use today's wealth and resources to prepare for an indefinite but highly competitive future. His plan for 2030 is premised on green assumptions, which is great, but as Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff notes, every initiative in the plan is based on economics first, which is even better. After all, environmentalists have long known, it is easier to be green when you're rich than when you're poor.

The essence of good green policy-not to mention good development-is to use the resources you have as intensively as possible. New York is energy efficient because it is dense and its transportation infrastructure unites its otherwise sprawling territory. The mayor's plan pushes that density and intensity even further. If we have it, he wants to use it, and use it well. Some of his proposals make sense precisely because land in this city has become so expensive. "We've been on a search for new land, and we'll take it wherever we find it," Doctoroff says.

Land Over Rails

One interesting place they found it was in the city's many exposed railyards, rail lines and highways. Thus the plan commands: Deck 'em over. Most yards and highways remain undeveloped and exposed because costly platforms must be built first-adding immensely to the costs of construction. Only the most valuable real estate-Grand Central's lines under Park Avenue, for example-warrants the extra cost. Yet as the plan notes, exposed railyards and highways are "places where communities stop, where neighborhood is divided from neighborhood." After citing the redevelopment of Caemmerer Yards (Hudson Yards) on the Far West Side of Manhattan, the plan-as it often does-heads immediately across the East River to discuss neighborhoods outside Manhattan , like Sunnyside Yards in Long Island City, Queens (pictured below).

Spanning nearly 200 acres, the dramatically exposed (and rather beautiful but hazardous) Sunnyside Yards are close to existing excellent transit and should benefit from the East Side Access project planned to connect the Long Island Rail Road with Grand Central Terminal. Residents of a mixed-use development would be able to walk to shopping on Steinway Street in Astoria, which would be reconnected to the cut-off areas to the south. Charming, funky Dutch Kills would get an economic infusion. Long Island City's restaurants, clubs, and bars-many of which are now struggling without quite enough people-would boom.

Similarly, building over the former railroad space alongside the Staten Island Ferry would eliminate a homely blight and bring new residents and workers, while reconnecting the lovely but deteriorated St. George neighborhood to the waterfront. The economics may not yet work in Staten Island, but the straight commuting shot from St. George to Wall Street is promising.

Transit for New Neighborhoods

Which brings us back to London. In some ways, what London accomplished in developing an entirely new financial center in the Docklands would be like New York developing a new financial center in St. George, Staten Island, or Red Hook, Brooklyn-both neighborhoods that once looked as far away from Wall Street or Midtown as the Docklands looked from Fleet Street. But London provided light rail to get there, realizing that transit opens up formerly fallow areas to good, green, efficient development-while a lack of transit just means expensive, polluting, ugly sprawl.

New Yorkers will be debating for some time to come where that light rail-or extended transit-should go: up the West Side of Manhattan? Along the Brooklyn waterfront? The North Shore of Staten Island? The possibilities are many.

The mayor's plan has elegantly laid out the strategies and initiatives, backing up arguments with data and excellent graphics. This excellent document gives us all a level playing field for debate. So let the conversations begin!

Julia Vitullo-Martin, a former columnist for the Gotham Gazette, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and director of its Center for Rethinking Development.

Sharing the Benefits -- and the Burdens

By Joan Byron, Alyssa Katz and Brad Lander

PlaNYC reflects visionary thinking - by the city and the diverse group of involved and interested people and groups they included. There is a lot to celebrate. But for all its innovation on sustainability, we would like to see a plan that does more to shape the city's growth to generate more equality and opportunity as well.

Environmental Justice: Congestion Pricing and Beyond

For the first time, the city has identified environmental justice as a guiding principle. PlaNYC's initiatives promise great benefits for communities that have carried far more than their fair share of environmental burdens.

The city's plan to hold down the demand for new electricity as its population grows will limit the need for new power plants; meanwhile old, dirty plants that have polluted the air in communities in Queens and elsewhere will be cleaned up. A new initiative will measure street-level air quality in neighborhoods throughout the city.

Congestion pricing promises to be a boon to working class neighborhoods in upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs, as well as to other parts of Manhattan. In Red Hook and Sunset Park, for example, just 3 percent of commuters - 1 percent of all residents - drive into Manhattan to work. The other 99 percent in those communities will benefit from the revenues created by congestion fees, which will be reinvested into mass transit improvements, and from cleaner air resulting from fewer vehicles going through their neighborhoods on the way into Manhattan. The same patterns hold for other outer-borough neighborhoods, even those far from subways, like Sheepshead Bay and Marine Park in Brooklyn, Soundview in the Bronx, and Southeastern Queens.

PlaNYC also makes important strides toward the redevelopment of brownfields, which are concentrated in lower-income and environmentally burdened neighborhoods. The city will establish a new brownfields office, expedite cleanups, and involve communities more actively in decisions on how to improve and reuse these areas.

The Next Steps

Now, more needs to be done to make environmental justice a guiding framework for New York's future. Monitoring air pollution is an important start. The city should inventory a greater range of environmental burdens in each neighborhood, and set goals and timetables for their reduction.

Unfortunately, the mayor's plan does far too little to address the fastest growing part of the traffic problem: trucks. Truck traffic weighs heavily on communities, mostly low-income, near industrial areas and highways. But the mayor's plan leaves out the Cross Harbor Rail Tunnel, which would take millions of trucks off the city's highways, bridges and streets. With truck traffic expected to grow by 70 percent between now and 2030, and the most vulnerable New Yorkers already suffering the health effect of unacceptable levels of diesel emissions, we cannot ignore the project with the most potential to take trucks off our streets.

Housing: Preservation Needed

The plan seeks to double the amount of land available for housing development - through transit-oriented development, rezoning and decking over railyards and highways - to accommodate an additional one million New Yorkers. If done right, balancing the need for growth with community input and planning that strengthens neighborhoods, these are smart ideas.

But there's so much demand for housing that new market-rate development will trickle down to provide more housing for low or moderate-income renters or buyers. We need to include aggressive measures to make sure that "new" land spawns housing affordable at a range of income levels.

The plan mentions inclusionary zoning as one tool-using voluntary density bonuses to prod developers to set aside 20 percent of the units as affordable housing. While we support the program, evidence from around the country shows that mandatory programs - ones that require the inclusion of affordable units - work better. And on publicly owned sites, more than half of the new housing must be affordable to the average New Yorkers.

Unfortunately, even with all these ideas, we cannot just build our way out of the housing crisis. As long as the city keeps growing, rents will keep rising, putting more pressure of millions of New Yorkers. So we must do more to preserve existing affordable housing. PlaNYC is disappointing here. While it restates the administration's commitment to preserving the affordability of existing Mitchell-Lama and other subsidized apartments, it offers no new initiatives. If we want to make growth work for the millions of existing New Yorkers, we need to strengthen rent regulations-most importantly, by repealing vacancy decontrol. Protections against harassment and displacement will also be essential as improvements to open space and transit make now-affordable neighborhoods more desirable places to live.

Equality, Opportunity, and Livable Neighborhoods

PlaNYC connects the dots of sustainability. It recognizes the synergies among disparate strategies. Congestion charging will fight gridlock, clean up our air and generate revenue for transit improvements. Planting trees will improve microclimate, air quality and property values and divert stormwater that would throw into sewers, creating overflows and eventually the need to more costly solutions.

PlaNYC now needs to connect the dots one step further - because the city's current growth is creating more inequality and segregation. Will the New York of 2030 be even more segregated than the one we know today? Will low-wage service workers face a choice between extreme commutes to work in a city they can't hope to live in, crowding into basements or paying nearly all of their income for rent? It is a gloomy possibility in an otherwise hopeful plan-and one we must take measures now to avoid.

PlaNYC offers us a chance to do something about growing inequality. Right now, the plan offers jobs for lawyers and investment bankers (underwriting bonds for the new SMART transportation authority) and even mollusks (cleaning the harbor). It could commit to a bold living wage and workforce development initiative that makes sure working class New Yorkers get good jobs creating the green city of tomorrow - but it won't happen without the mayor's leadership and follow-up.

Finally, as we build new housing and neighborhoods, we can do more to involve residents in planning for what will make their neighborhoods great. Yes, in many instances the City will need to insist on growth targets that many people won't like. But that's all the more reason to involve them in planning for the parks, transportation, schools, child care, community and cultural centers that will make growth work.

PlaNYC is bold start toward a more sustainable city, and we intend to be there to help make it happen. With an even bolder commitment, the New York City of 2030 can be not just a greener place, but also one of more opportunity, vibrant communities, and more fully shared prosperity.

Joan Byron, Alyssa Katz and Brad Lander are with the Pratt Center for Community Development.

A Greener, Greater and Fairer New York

By Ron Shiffman

Earth Day 2007 was a beautiful day and provided the perfect setting for Mayor Michael Bloomberg to unveil PlaNYC2030. It is the most important initiative undertaken by any mayor in my memory and I have been a practicing planner in New York for five decades. But, while the plan deserve the support of every New Yorker, it does have some significant omissions that must be addressed.

The detail contained in PlaNYC2030 to make New York the Greenest City and the array of proposals to address global warming deserve our attention and support whether or not we agree with every detail. It offers a base upon which community-based planning advocates, the environmental justice community and other progressives can build an equitable and just response to global warming.

Looking At The Big Picture

For decades, a holistic approach to achieving sustainability has evaded public officials and advocates alike. But now, we have a mayoral administration that is not afraid to look at the intricately woven cloth of our complex ecosystem and to put forth solutions to problems, even if the outcomes and benefits will not manifest themselves until future generations.

Achieving the objectives put forth by the mayor will conflict with the priorities and profits of many local and global interests. It will require a level of courage, competence and capacity that had generally been absent in our local elected leadership and in administrative agencies.

The knee-jerk negative reaction of some of local elected leaders to the proposal provides an early indication of this. They are blindly rejecting a well-thought out and reasoned approach to addressing traffic congestion, air quality and the health and the welfare of our communities, particularly the low and moderate income communities that for far to long have been victims of environmental injustices.

Adding In Equity

But while the plan addresses environmental justice, it needs to more explicitly address the goals of social and economic equity. Without that, decisions about where to site various facilities and land use could engender even greater economic disparities. An effective means of "fair share" needs to be established, so that both burdensome and beneficial uses of land are distributed equitably throughout the city.

The plan also need a sustainable housing agenda that explicitly mandates that development include affordable housing and that sets out strategies to achieve diversity and economically integrated neighborhoods. Proposals for decking our rail yards need to be carefully reviewed and informed by the communities that surround them. The cost of that decking should not create housing that is unaffordable for the average New Yorker or lead to densities that are too high for the social, economic and environmental infrastructure needed to sustain them. Proposals to create housing need to ensure that we do not displace jobs, particularly manufacturing jobs. We need to provide space for the existing manufacturing enterprises and for those that will emerge. We need to encourage green forms of production and the manufacture of new green products that will be needed to make the City more environmentally sustainable.

Given the overarching goals of equity, social and environmental justice, we have to learn to listen carefully to community residents. We need to enhance our participatory planning and environmental assessment processes. We must give legitimacy and support to those residents and community-based developers who, oblivious to risk, rebuilt our communities instead of subsidizing those risk-adverse developers who follow in their wake.

Creating A Better Plan

Let us listen to the transportation advocates and citywide organizations that have advocated that New York State and New Jersey look at how New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Railroad could be merged. This would provide regional rail services and allow us to free up to 50 percent of the area of Sunnyside Yards for other forms of development -- without the need for decking. Instead of looking to rezone only manufacturing areas let us explore better ways to use the large swaths of land now consumed by "big box" stores, with their massive parking lots, and strip retailers so that we can build more efficiently and in more creative ways -- without displacing the existing retailers.

And let us work with the mayor to not only address global warming but also to adapt to the climate changes that are already taking place. We need to protect and upgrade our infrastructure so that we do not fall victim to catastrophic events, including those caused by climate change. Mayor Bloomberg and the mayors of the other financial capitals of the world could adopt a universal "Stock Transfer Tax" whose resources could be dedicated to protecting their own cities and addressing the needs of their poorest residents, as well as assisting other vulnerable cities and regions of the world that cannot afford to protect themselves from global warming created by the consumption of others. Such a global tax on the financial is both appropriate and just.

Most importantly let us challenge Mayor Bloomberg by helping him make his initiative a success and by working with his administration to make it better. Let's challenge him so that his administration practices the behavior sought and outlined by his plan, that, for example, it moves to preserve and adapt, rather than to demolish. Let us ensure that every planning and rezoning initiative is the result of a participatory planning process and is responsive to the goals outlined in PlaNYC rather than to the whims of powerful interests or to short term politically expedient goals.

Ron Shiffman is a professor at the Pratt Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment and a former New York City Planning commissioner.

A Need to Involve Communities

By Tom Angotti

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's 2030 plan is nothing if not grand. But can even a fraction of it be implemented? Unless the mayor's office and his agencies start to truly engage the hundreds of neighborhoods and thousands of civic groups and community organizations, the 2030 plan may go down in history as one more City Hall laundry list.

Over the last year, the mayor's plan was cooked up in City Hall with the help of outside consultants. Consultations with community and civic groups were more like managed focus groups -- marketing techniques were tested, but concerned individuals were not allowed into the decision-making process. Now that the plan has been unveiled, there is no systematic way the public can engage in its implementation. Instead, the 2030 plan promises to continue the administration's top-down approach and ignore the scores of local plans.

It does not have to be that way. Section 197-a of the New York City Charter establishes a mechanism for developing and approving community-based plans. It includes public hearings, discussions and votes by community boards, the borough presidents, the City Planning Commission and the City Council. The 2030 Plan involves none of these forums. As a result, many of the noble goals outlined in the 2030 Plan are likely to run into local opposition, while others get buried by recalcitrant agency functionaries.

The only apparent area in which the plan promises community involvement is in brownfields development. In most other areas, the city has missed an opportunity to mine the rich collection of local talent, experience and planning ideas, many of which are consistent with and even more developed than those coming out of City Hall. If it were to go through the process mandated by the charter, the mayor's plan would invariably emerge as a much richer piece of work with better prospects for implementation. It could also serve as a much-needed framework for community-based planning, which should not be divorced from citywide needs and policy considerations.

Skeptics will scoff at the idea of review by all 59 community boards, pointing to their shortcomings and instances in which the board membership fails to truly reflect community residents. But this would be a good opportunity to strengthen the boards as foundations of local democracy, provide them with the resources needed to fulfill their mission, and insist that they be inclusive and representative of their constituencies. If the boards become partners in formulating the city's long-term goals, the administration will have a much better chance of achieving its goals.

Growth Above All

Underneath the green coating of the 2030 Plan lies an even more powerful growth agenda. The projection of one million more residents functions as a Holy Grail.

The plan envisions new megaprojects built on hugely expensive platforms over rail yards. Even with significant private financing, these developments will soak up enormous public subsidies and justify exorbitant rents and house prices. Modest new investments in surface mass transit will go to serve these giant projects, but like the inadequate light rail project in London's Canary Wharf mega development, the general public will end up footing the bill for the long-postponed expansions of subway capacity that are bound to follow.

The 2030 plan promises to make all neighborhoods greener with local parks and plazas. It will be easy to find locations for these facilities in the newly created megaprojects, but how are these and other promised amenities going to be placed in existing neighborhoods?

Instead of calling for planning in partnership with communities, the city insists on using its zoning powers as a club to hold over local residents and businesses. The plan calls for massive upzonings - allowing neighborhoods to become more densely developed -- to create new market-rate housing. But it fails to tell us how much public subsidies will be needed to support such development, and continues to offer programs yielding only token amounts of new affordable housing and open space in established neighborhoods. When it comes to preservation, the plan does not go the extra mile; for growth, it promises the moon.

Tom Angotti is director of the Hunter College Center for Community Planning & Development and writes the monthly Land Use column for Gotham Gazette.

Bringing the Plan to Communities

By Eve Baron

There is a lot to like in the mayor's plaNYC 2030. It reflects the thoughts and practices of planners who realize that whatever you do in one realm of planning impacts another realm. And so the loose network of civic organizations organized around good, progressive planning, which include the Municipal Art Society Planning Center, can help to build support for plaNYC 2030 proposals in Albany, where it really will count.

The plan is also very ambitious and comprehensive. It will keep city agencies -- and people like us who closely watch what those city agencies do -- busy for a long time as we all try to reconcile all the plan's various parts and provisions. For example, the plan refers to decking over rail yards and highways. That is a good way to increase space for building, but it is also an expensive process that increases the price of whatever goes on top of the deck and so may not contribute to the production of affordable housing.

The plan makes note of "opportunity areas" that would allow further, more intensive development. Although the impact of development in these areas will have profound local consequences, there has not yet been coordination with the communities that will absorb the impacts - and ostensibly some of the benefits. We look forward to hearing more about how the administration will work with communities to develop consensus around these sites and what gets built on them -- before requests for bids go out and developers chosen.

New York City residents have already identified "opportunity areas" in their community-developed 197-a plans and other consensus-based plans. (See Planning for All New Yorkers: The Briefing Book of Community-Based Plans, developed by the Campaign for Community-Based Planning.) The administration couldn't ask for a better opportunity - socially, economically, and politically - to implement the goals of PlaNYC 2030 than to take community-generated plans, understand them as the creative and balanced blueprints for growth that they are and implement them.

Bringing New Yorkers closer to the planning process is one way to build concrete support for the goals of plaNYC. Another way is to create a new planning process that brings New Yorkers the tools and resources needed for them to create their own neighborhood-level, sustainability plans.

Eve Baron is director of the Municipal Art Society Planning Center.

 

Predatory Lending Fuels Rise in Foreclosures


A crush of foreclosures in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx is raising alarms and leading many to call on city and state authorities to do more to go after the unscrupulous people at mortgage brokerage firms, at banks and on Wall Street who, they say, are fueling the problem.

“We’ve been predicting this for years,” said Oda Friedheim, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society in Queens. “Many lenders have developed really abusive loan practices that target communities of color and any vulnerable people.”

Through March, more than 1,200 foreclosures had been filed this year in Queens on one- to four-family properties, a 57 percent increase over the same period last year. About 3,600 were filed in all of 2006 in the borough, according to the www.nedap.org Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project. In Brooklyn, over 1,100 foreclosures had been filed from January to March compared to about 3,300 for all of last year.

Foreclosures have been increasing for the last several years. The city will likely see more than 10,000 foreclosures this year – almost twice what it saw as recently as 2004.

The surge in foreclosures is at least partly linked to predatory lending practices of brokers and lending institutions. For years, housing advocates in Queens particularly have been calling for tougher action against unscrupulous brokers who convince homeowners and first-time homebuyers to take loans on bad terms. When the borrowers can’t pay the loans, the lender can take the property. As a result, foreclosures lead to the loss of housing for senior citizens and other low-income people, pull wealth out of neighborhoods and rob the city of property tax revenue, at least temporarily.

The problem is nationwide. As many as 2.2 million Americans will face the loss of their homes over the next several years because they will not be able to repay the loans they have taken, according to a report by the Center for Responsible Lending.

Sup-Prime Lending

The problems leading up to the rash of foreclosures are complicated, but subprime loans are at the root of the increase.

Subprime lending has been a critical part of the nation’s housing boom for over a decade, allowing a lot of people who would otherwise not be able to buy a home to do so. The loans charge higher rates of interest and, in their worst forms – referred to as predatory lending – the loans are foisted upon people in deceitful ways, have exorbitant hidden fees and apply significant penalties if the borrower tries to get out of them later. The rate of subprime lending in New York City has more than tripled since 2002, according to the Furman Center for Real Estate.

The rates of subprime lending here are higher than the national averages. About 23 percent of home purchase loans are subprime, up from just 6.5 percent in 2002. Nationally, the proportion of home purchase loans that are subprime is 17 percent.

Friedheim sees the city’s numbers as ominous. “The subprime market is going bust and so we will see more foreclosures,” she said.

There are two types of cases where someone gets a subprime loan. In the first of the two scenarios, a person who already owns a home wants to refinance the mortgage in order to, say, make significant repairs to the home. In the second scenario, someone is trying to buy a first home. Eager to achieve such a milestone, the buyer neglects to study carefully the conditions of the loan being offered. Unscrupulous mortgage brokers and the lending industry prey on both groups of people.

Kevin Squires, a loan officer at a Queens mortgage company, said the first scenario is common as homeowners are bombarded daily with offers to refinance their homes. The advertisements blare across virtually every medium: A man walking along a city street recently was wearing a bright orange street that declared in large letters, “We buy homes: 856-541-9000.” Late night ads promise “no fees, no hidden costs.”

The brokers are particularly interested in those who already own the home, Squires said. “If you have someone who owes $150,000 but their house is worth $450,000, then they have $300,000 equity in their home,” Squires explained. “The only way they can pull that out is by doing a refinance.” But if the borrower’s credit is not up to par, he or she must go to a mortgage broker and get a non-conventional loan. If the borrower cannot meet the terms of that loan, he or she could lose their home.

But homeowners and first-time homebuyers with good credit are becoming victims of predatory lending as well, said Cathy Mickens of Neighborhood Housing Services in Jamaica, Queens.

“It has spread throughout the community,” Mickens said, affecting middle-income and high-income people as well as those with lower incomes. Some people who could have gone to a conventional lender and qualified for a standard mortgage will instead go to a predatory lender who promises to provide the loan quickly and with no documents required. Often, Mickens said, the result is “a disaster.”

 

Who Is to Blame?

 

While some have suggested that borrowers are at fault because of their zeal to own a home or get quick money, unscrupulous mortgage brokers, lending institutions and Wall Street investors, motivated by greed and racism, are the driving force.

Brokers and banks have often “intentionally disregarded the facts of the income of the borrower,” Friedheim said. “Even when they see the income and it’s totally predictable that the person cannot afford it, they’ll give the loan anyway.”

Brokers are motivated to foist these loans on borrowers because the brokers get commissions and face no financial losses if the borrower defaults and a foreclosure is initiated.

Once the unscrupulous brokers find a willing homeowner, they effectively prevent the person from comparison shopping: They provide a home appraiser and attorney who help convince the homeowner or homebuyer to sign the loan.

“Eighty to 85 percent of [the subprime mortgage brokers working in low-income communities] operate unethically,” Squires said. “I don’t have anything concrete to prove that figure, but of all the loans I have seen, most people who end up going to these brokers become victims of predatory lending.”

A chain of incentives in the lending industry drives predatory lending. Unscrupulous mortgage brokers chase homeowners and first-time homebuyers because banks will pay the brokers commissions. The banks, in turn, are motivated by the profits they can make by packaging the loans and selling them to Wall Street investors. The investors, of course, are interested in the rates of return on these investments.

“One concern we’ve had is that the market incentives actually favor predatory lending,” said Mary Moore of the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization based in Durham, North Carolina, that studies lending issues. “There are a lot of strong reasons from a business perspective to do it.”

On the other hand, Moore said, “brokers have no obligation to give their borrowers the best deal. They get paid whether the loan gets foreclosed or not.”

The Lending Gap

Predatory lending is an acute problem in the city’s poorer neighborhoods. On the surface, that seems understandable: Subprime loans are meant for risky borrowers who must pay higher interest rates because they are, well, risky. But one study by the Center for Responsible Lending showed that African American and Latino borrowers who would qualify for loans from prime lending institutions are steered toward the subprime market.

Over half of African Americans who get a mortgage get subprime loans, the study showed. For Latinos, the rate was 42 percent. But for whites it was just 19 percent.

“We think there’s discrimination going on,” Moore said. “It’s well known that often brokers steer African Americans and Latinos to subprime loans even when they qualify for other loans.”

Data on subprime lending in the city from the Furman Institute showed the concentration of these types of loans in the city’s poorer neighborhoods. Brownsville and Jamaica, both largely African-American communities, were the highest ranking community districts for subprime lending. In both, roughly 52 percent of home purchase loans involved subprime loans. The top 15 districts include overwhelmingly African American and Latino communities in the city, including Highbridge in the Bronx and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn.

“It’s reverse redlining,” Friedheim said, referring to lending practices where banks refuse to loan money to people living in certain neighborhoods – neighborhoods where African Americans and Latinos live. “These neighborhoods don’t have banking services and predatory lenders target them.”

 

What can be done?

 

The City Council's committees on Consumer Affairs and Civil Rights will hold a joint meeting on predatory lending in the hearing room of 250 Broadway on April 30 at 10 a.m.

Advocates are urging elected officials to address the problem aggressively.

For starters, they want the city to expand the mayor’s 2005 initiative providing assistance to people purchasing or refinancing a home. The mayor’s “Preserve Assets and Community Equity” program has involved raising public awareness about predatory lending in the hardest hit communities and has included providing counseling to homeowners and community groups on the problem, referring victims to attorneys and helping homeowners find financial help.

Advocates said the city should also increase funding to legal service providers to deal with the problem. Advocates, including those at the organization I work for, want elected official to establish a right to counsel for low-income seniors who face foreclosure actions and housing court cases. They also are urging lawmakers to strengthen laws restricting high-cost loans.

“You need multiple strategies to deal with this problem,” Friedheim said. “The federal government and regulatory agencies have to develop tighter rules. There have to be strong legislative efforts to make sure lenders are accountable when they give an unaffordable loan.”

In 2003, the New York State Legislature passed an anti-predatory lending law. But it only applies to loans up to $300,000. Advocates say that, in light of increases in housing costs, the law should be amended to cover larger loans.

State legislators are currently considering a law on lending for home improvements. Among other things, it would prohibit mortgage brokers from also acting as home improvement contractors. But the bill has been introduced in the Assembly annually since 2003, and the Senate has yet to consider it formally.

Mandated to do so or not, banks should apply good loan-making rules, said Moore of the Center for Responsible Lending. The center applauded an announcement that Freddie Mac, the federally chartered mortgage finance company, would no longer buy subprime loans with terms and conditions that often lead to foreclosures.

“Something serious has got to happen,” Mickens said. “The neighborhoods are at risk now and it’s just going to tear the whole community apart.”

Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.  

Sunnyside Fights Over What to Preserve


Residents in Sunnyside, Queens are facing off against each other over how best to preserve the historic Sunnyside Gardens housing development. And the fight may be more about who will be able to live in Sunnyside than the buildings that those people will live in.

On April 17, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission will hold a public hearing on its proposal to create an historic district including 16 city blocks and 610 buildings in what would be the largest historic district in Queens. The townhouses and apartment buildings in the district were built in the 1920s and 1930s by architects Clarence Stein and Henry Wright, following the precepts of British planner Ebenezer Howard. Howard proposed building “Garden Cities” with abundant open space to provide housing for working class households in a communitarian environment. They were intended as an alternative to congested industrial cities. The Garden City idea is influential, but Sunnyside is one of only a few examples actually built in New York City or anywhere in the nation.

The Preservation District

Sunnyside is already protected from redevelopment pressures by a Special Planned Community Preservation District. In this district, created in 1974, anyone who wants to take down or build any structure, enclose a porch, enlarge a home or put in a garage, driveway or curb cut must obtain a special permit. It also protects Sunnyside’s unique common areas and gardens; permission is required to remove a tree.

To obtain these special permits, the property owner must apply to the Department of City Planning and prepare an environmental assessment. The application then goes through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, requiring public hearings and votes by the local community board, borough president, City Planning Commission and City Council. Some property owners have complained that the process is too time consuming and costly. So, for the last several years, the local community board had been working with the Queens city planning Ofoice to address these concerns.

A Landmark District

Some residents of Sunnyside believe the zoning district has proved successful. “The zoning district has worked to protect the most significant element of the neighborhood, the open space,” said Hunter College professor Susan Turner-Meiklejohn, who live in Sunnyside and opposes the landmarks designation. “The key goals of the Garden City were not architectural but social,” said Turner-Meiklejohn who has done extensive research on the community. And in any event, she said, Sunnyside is “not an architectural masterpiece.”

But the Sunnyside Gardens Preservation Alliance, which backs the landmarks proposal, believes that the historic district would provide additional protection for the area. Jeffrey Kroessler, a landmark proponent, complains that the current zoning district “doesn’t protect the aesthetic qualities of the buildings.” Some supporters also feel the landmarks procedures would be less cumbersome than those in the special zoning district.

Kroessler, who is also a founder of the Queensboro Preservation League and a recent Sunnyside arrival, sees another advantage to the landmarking: It would move the landmarks commission away from its Manhattan-centric focus. Queens now has only six designated historic districts, a mere fraction of the city’s total.

But the Preserve Sunnyside Gardens Coalition, which opposes the landmarks designation, worries about the costs landmarks regulations would place on building owners. Coalition member Ira Greenberg told the Queens Tribune that replacing a slate roof as required by Landmarks would cost him some $45,000, over 10 times the usual cost.

What to Preserve?

The dispute in Sunnyside Gardens is in many respects a debate over what aspect of a community deserves protection. Those opposing the landmarking argue that it would preserve architectural details such as roofs, windows, doors and facades times but would make the housing there unaffordable to the moderate-income working class population that is at the core of the Garden City concept. Affordability, they say, is what most deserves to be preserved.

In a heated exchange on WNYC radio’s Brian Lehrer show with landmarks proponent Kroessler, Turner-Meiklejohn asserted that recent demographic changes in the neighborhood have a lot to do with the landmarks proposal. With over 50 percent of the population foreign-born, the non-Hispanic white population is now only around 40 percent, and the social base for new restrictions is in that minority of “old-timers.”

But Kroessler denies that ethnicity or race has anything to do with the matter. He says that housing prices have already been going up in the neighborhood and that has nothing to do with the proposed historic district designation. (Studies have shown that property values tend to be higher in landmark districts).

However, Kroessler did tell the Queens Tribune, “Over the past few years there have been individuals who have done illegal work on their homes and have ‘uglified’ their property.”

The argument in Sunnyside reflects a debate taking place throughout Queens, where some resident blame working class immigrants for changes in the urban landscape. Justified concerns about out-of-context building conversions often get mixed with disdain for new foreign-born residents. Crackdowns on building violations and demands for downzoning sometimes target the new populations instead of trying to accommodate them and go after the violators.

While it is a good idea to have strict but sensible regulations that promote good design and aesthetically pleasing neighborhoods, there is a fascination and a value in the immense variety of ways that people alter and decorate their homes. Some of these efforts are beautiful, others are mediocre, and still others are incredibly ugly. The shapes, colors and textures go from glorious to garish. But that is what makes a walk down a New York street exciting.

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning. 

A Platform to Preserve Housing


In recent years, housing advocates in New York have focused on city government. But in just the past few months, that has changed dramatically. Advocates now plan aggressively to push an agenda for preserving the dwindling supply of affordable housing – and they have aimed it directly at state politicians.

A key element is the election of a new governor. During the Pataki years, few housing activists embraced any hope that the governor or the Republican-led State Senate would take any action to preserve and expand affordable housing in the state. The election of Governor Eliot Spitzer has changed that. “Clearly (the political conditions) are the best they’ve been since I’ve been involved in this kind of work,” said Tom Waters of the Community Service Society.

But other developments have also fueled calls for changes in housing policy. First, the Coalition for the Homeless released its annual report on the state of homelessness. Its most salient finding was that family homelessness in New York City has reached a record high.

Second, the city’s commissioner for homeless services, Robert Hess, announced that apartments being considered for subsidies under the city’s Housing Stability Plus rent subsidy program will be subject to more rigorous inspections and must be in adequate condition before the city will lease them. Under the current program, the value of the housing subsidy decreases by 20 percent a year and only people getting public assistance are eligible for the subsidies. Advocates would like to see both those policies changed, and Hess has told advocates that could become reality shortly .

These two developments, along with the changes in Albany, serve as reminders first of the continuing problem in finding affordable housing and second of the ability of concerned citizens to persuade policymakers to make changes.

THE HOUSING CAMPAIGN

To address this, a broad coalition of housing advocates and others have launched a campaign around preserving affordable housing. They have dubbed their push “New York Is Our Home! Affordable rent campaign,” are planning a massive rally for May 23 to call attention to the affordable housing problems and set up a Website.

The platform calls for action on four fronts:

--Preserving Mitchell-Lama and Section 8 apartments. Landlords have been opting out of these programs as the terms of their contracts expire. This has increased rents in some of the buildings to market rate, out of the reach of many tenants.

--Repealing vacancy decontrol. This policy, which allows rents to rise in apartments after they become vacant, has led to the loss of as many as 100,000 rent-regulated apartments in New York City since 1997.

--Reinstating operating subsidies for public housing projects the state developed. Pataki did away with these subsidies in 1998 and earlier this year, the housing authority proposed using Section 8 rent subsidy vouchers to pay rent on the apartments. This enraged many advocates, who believe these vouchers should be used to pay for private housing – not for public housing, which, after all, is supposed to be affordable without such vouchers. Using the vouchers for public housing reduces by thousands the number available to help poor families find affordable housing in the private market.

--Limiting rent payments for New Yorkers living with AIDS to 30 percent of their income. The state has proposed having these tenants pay all of their income except $330 monthly on rent.

The platform springs partly from an understanding that, despite its many facets, the affordable housing is a single problem. “We’ve recognized that it’s not good enough to work on Mitchell-Lama over here, to work on rent regulated apartments over there,” Hilda Chavis of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, told the audience at the recent meeting on the platform.” It all hangs together. If one goes, the other goes. So, we have to work together.”

THE NEED FOR PRESERVATION

While Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s housing program has been largely aimed at building more affordable homes, the advocates’ platform focuses on preserving those apartments that already exist – an area, they say, where the mayor has been far less successful.

“Many of us praised the mayor for producing affordable housing,” said Brad Lander of the Pratt Center for Community Development. “But we also recognized that [keeping] the 1.3 million affordable units we have is more critical than ever.”

Julie Miles of Housing Here and Now and the campaign director for the new campaign echoed Lander’s comment. “Locally, the mayor has invested a lot of money, billions of dollars, toward creating new affordable housing,” she said. “But we’re on track to lose hundreds of thousands of units and unless we stop the loss of units, we’ll make no headway in alleviating the pressure on affordable housing.”

RECOGNIZING THE PROBLEM

The platform has attracted a broad base of support, including housing groups from across the city, politicians, unions and the Working Families Party.

“At the top of everybody’s list is affordable housing,” Miles said. Individual families are paying more of their incomes to rent, elected officials are seeing more of their constituents coming to their offices with housing problems, and union members are saying they need higher wages to deal with increases in rents.

When the New York Times ran an editorial in support of rent stabilization last month, Michael McKee of Tenant PAC said he knew a critical shift had taken place. “That’s the first time the Times has come out in support of rent stabilization in more than 30 years,” he said. “All of sudden editors and reporters have realized that there’s a very serious problem.”

Campaign organizers say that the Bloomberg administration, along with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and other council members also support their cause.

The new political climate does not guarantee that change will come quickly or easily. “It’s going to be a tough fight,” said Michael McKee of Tenant PAC. “But there’s a chance we could get something this year.”

That possibility has energized activists. “Clearly all of us, across the progressive spectrum, are very excited… at the changing political dynamic,” Bill Lipton of the Working Families Party said at a recent meeting of more than 200 advocates. “It feels like a new moment.”

Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.  

New Bills -- Government on the Web, Parking, and Illegal Hotels


At each of the City Council's stated meetings, council members introduce bills, most of which will never become laws (for the process by which bills become laws, click here). As a regular feature, Gotham Gazette discusses some of the legislation proposed at each meeting.

 

GOVERNMENT ON THE WEB

 

The council was flush with ideas about using the Internet to improve city government at its most recent Stated Meeting on March 14. Council members introduced several bills that would use the Internet to make it easier for New Yorkers to get information about city government and participate in civic life.

All public meetings of city agencies and the City Council would be Webcast under a new bill introduced by Councilmember Gale Brewer (Intro 533), head of the City Council's technology in government committee.

"Important budget discussions, agency testifying, that should be available for the public," said Gale Brewer. " Very few people come to City Hall."

Currently, public meetings are taped and broadcast on NYC-TV. Some are also Webcast, although this coverage is inconsistent. Recording and Webcasting all meetings would require an investment from city government. Brewer said she would develop a price tag for her bill as it goes forward.

This bill mirrors an executive order issued by Governor Eliot Spitzer on his first day in office that requires all public meetings of state agencies be Webcast by July 1, 2007.

Simply putting meetings online is probably not enough, said Brewer, a confessed NYC-TV addict. She acknowledges that the station's coverage is often "unwatchable" because those testifying are not identified on the screen, and there is often a significant amount of dead airtime. Eventually, she says, Webcasts of meetings should be productions that include important information, like the names of those speaking and instructions on finding written testimony online. They would also be archived on the city government's Web site.

"If we're going to Webcast," she said, "we have to think about how to make it more interesting."

Council Speaker Christine Quinn introduced another bill (Intro 531) that would require agencies to give the council electronic copies of all documents they have to submit in hard copy, such as oversight reports. A bill already requires these agencies to submit such documents to the Department of Records and Information Services, which then makes it available to the council, said a council spokesperson. (In theory, at least. Gotham Gazette ran an article that found that this isn't always happening.) This bill would streamline that process.

 

PARKING

 

John Liu also introduced a bill that would require the city's Department of Transportation to post the city's parking regulations online, block-by-block.

The bill would serve two purposes, said John Choe, Liu's chief of staff.

Currently, the public does not have access to such information, even though administrative judges who preside over parking court do. Such information should be made easily available to the public online, said Choe.

But Choe says the bill is also seen as a step towards the possibility of more fundamental changes in the city's parking policy. In certain circles, parking policy inspires intense emotions. (Liu's bill is not the only parking bill introduced at the meeting, in fact. James Vacca introduced one (Intro 544) that would increase fines for truckers who park illegally on residential streets).

Some think that parking regulations should be overhauled to reflect a transportation policy that seeks to reduce driving and encourage mass transit. By beginning to compile parking information online, this bill seeks to be the beginning of a discussion about larger changes, like the possibility of raising the price of online parking to reflect the actual demand for spaces.

"It would open up the possibility for more innovative policies," said Choe. "Maybe there's a way to price these parking spaces differently so it maximizes public good."

 

ILLEGAL HOTEL CONVERSIONS

 

Gale Brewer also introduced a bill (Intro 534) intended to cut down on landlords who convert apartments into illegal hotels.

Brewer and other officials have been fielding an increasing number of complaints from constituents who say their apartment buildings are being turned into hotels. They say that their landlords harass them or withhold services, hoping to force them out and replace their apartments with more lucrative hotel rooms. Some also voice security concerns about a steady flow of strangers in and out of their buildings. In a city where the scarcity of affordable housing has reached emergency levels, Brewer and others see taking apartments off the market illegally as a serious offense.

In January 2006 Brewer, State Senator Liz Krueger, and State Assemblymember Richard Gottfried formed a working group on illegal hotel conversions. The task force has received complaints from about 100 buildings, concentrated primarily in Manhattan.

Gottfried and Krueger have introduced legislation at the state level that would give city officials more enforcement power and close some loopholes allowing landlords to run illegal hotels. That bill is being considered in Albany.

Brewer's bill, seen as a compliment, would increase the fines on violators.

According to Brewer's office, it makes financial sense for landlords to violate the law, because an average fine is only about $800, while illegal hotels are immensely profitable. Her bill would change the fine structure significantly. Fines would range from $1,000 for first time offenders to $20,000 for repeat offenders. It would also add a civil penalty that would be assessed daily until the landlord could prove that he or she is no longer using apartments for hotel use.

Other officials and city agencies have also joined the effort. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has added a full-time staff member to the Office of Midtown Enforcement to confront illegal conversions. The mayor's office is working on its own package of legislation regarding illegal hotel conversions.

 



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