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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union

Cleaning Up an Agency and an Accident


Photo from AllWaysNY
Photo courtesy of AllWaysNY.com

In my East Side and midtown Manhattan district you will find giant cranes and new high-rise buildings on nearly a third of the densely populated blocks -- the same blocks that experienced the tragic crane accident last week that claimed seven lives and left scores injured and displaced from their homes. Since then, all of the questions from people in my community have been about how an accident of this nature could happen; what we need to do to protect workers and residents; and why the frequency of these incidents seem to be escalating. Of course, we have now learned that whatever technically caused the crane to topple, we cannot rely on the Department of Building's system of inspection. At least one of their inspectors admitted he didn't show up for the inspection.

The Problem

Our city's approach to construction approvals and safety has been fundamentally flawed since changes were enacted by the Giuliani administration. Because of a lack of enforcement by the Department of Buildings, along with an extremely hot real estate market, many developers and their contractors ignore safety requirements, disregard building codes and violate zoning laws.

For too many years, the city has under staffed agencies charged with oversight, has had an ineffective penalty and deterrence model, and has allowed the development and construction industry to police itself.

People complain that government is too often reactive, not proactive, and that only after crises are real solutions proposed. Fair enough. I say there have been too many of these types of accidents, and I don't accept the "freak accident" excuse.

Either our inspection and safety protocols are wrong or the people charged with carrying them out have failed at their jobs (as was clearly the case here!) -- or both. There must be changes from the top down, starting with the resignation of the Department of Buildings Commissioner Patricia Lancaster. The department does not have a centralized database for tracking or correlating information between stop work orders, violations and enforcement outcomes.

A 2003 city comptroller's audit found that 67 percent of sampled construction plans that were submitted to the department through self-certification had errors. By 2007, nearly 50 percent were in error. New York City's Department of Buildings initiated self-certification in 1995 to help ease a permit backlog. The practice allows architects and engineers to confirm that their plans comply applicable laws, rather than submit plans to department inspectors. It accounted for nearly half the 6,000 new building permits issued in 2006 and a similar number in 2007.

Some State Solutions

Since the city has been resistant to mandating stricter safety standards, and the department isn't moving forward on its own, there is a role for the state to play. Here are just some of the bills currently in the Senate and/or Assembly:

  • One of the biggest problems facing safe development today is the department's self-certification process. While I don't question the fact that the majority of architects and engineers are professionals who would not make false certifications, the city's agency charged with ensuring the public's safety cannot continue to abdicate its responsibility to others. The Department of Buildings must immediately end self-certification for the construction of all high-rise skyscrapers. Clearly these projects are radically more complex and risky than the building of a single family home or smaller buildings.
  •  

  • Increase penalties and professional sanctions for those who show patterns of violating regulations, safety standards and zoning laws. Remember the proverb "fool me twice..."
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  • Require the department re-inspect and abate hazardous violations and significantly increase the oversight of development sites, prioritizing the frequency of inspections to those sites with histories of violations.
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  • Mandate clear lines of responsibility for developers, contractors and their subcontractors. In the case of the crane collapse March 8, the developer says that he is not responsible because he contracted out the construction, and they in turn subcontracted to a crane company. The current guidelines are not nearly clear enough, leading to complex litigation with each incident that occurs.
  •  

    New legislation can provide more tools to our agencies. However, if laws are not enforced, they are not worth the paper we wrote them on. The city needs to enforce the laws that are on the books and provide the department with the resources it needs to conduct full inspections, prioritizing them by size of project and the risks involved.

    Photo courtesy of Maycon Beal
    Photo courtesy of Maycon Beal

    Raising the City's Standards

    Reports indicate that the cause of the crane collapse may be a damaged or frayed strap used to stabilize it, which could not bear the load. While building department records showed that the site, including the crane, had been inspected by the department shortly before the accident, we have since learned that at least some of those inspections did not take place.

    This chain of events perfectly exemplifies the need for better enforcement and oversight by the Department of Buildings. City officials were called in to inspect complaints on the site. At least one inspector failed to show up, but submitted reports that indicated everything was fine. Assuming others did show up as required, did they know what to look for? Did they see the problems? Did they crosscheck resolution of the 14 outstanding safety violations at the site while they were there that day? As Robert Guskind of the website Gowanus Lounge says, even if the department "functioned like a well-oiled machine that rigorously enforced city regulations, its inspectors are still overwhelmed by the level of construction." I agree.

    In many instances, the city's response to violations has been something like: "It's already done so there is nothing we can do." In the case of most violations issued, the developer goes before the Environmental Control Board. However, the board often won't hear complaints for months and the developer can easily get hearings postponed. When cases are finally heard, the fines are usually so small that they are considered "the cost of doing business."When scofflaws laugh about petty cash penalties, we know we have a problem. Fines need to be enforced in a timely way, and dramatically increased to adequately serve as a deterrent.

    The Department's Role

    In December, the Daily News reported that an architect of 32 sites received "an unusual stipulation, promising not to report the Ă«alleged misdeeds to any regulatory agency,' including one that could revoke his license," by the department commissioner. She should have stepped down from her position then. If the city is serious about addressing these concerns, step one would be for her to step down now.

    In another instance, a Brooklyn developer was found to have 48 violations from one development -- the same development he certified at 100 percent compliance. The developer of the site of the crane accident had 14 violations. Though none were deemed extremely serious, there should be a clearly defined timeline during which developers must bring their sites up to code or be forced to stop their work. This must occur within hours, or at most days, not months or years.

    New York should not accept a model of construction safety that relies on a neighbor seeing something wrong and reporting it. Though residents are encouraged to report problems, the role of the department should be to prevent problems beforehand. It must be on the scene even before complaints are reported, and when complaints do come in, it needs to take them seriously and address them fully. Despite the department's mission to "ensure the safe and lawful use of over 950,000 buildings and properties by enforcing the City's Building Code, Electrical Code, Zoning Resolution, New York State Labor Law and New York State Multiple Dwelling Law," the agency does not seem to fully understand its role in actually ensuring "safe and lawful" sites. And increased funding is not the silver bullet.

    If the city is unable to provide more money for staffing, then the cost of permits must be raised accordingly to fund new inspectors and a faster penalty system. A study conducted by then-Assembly member (now borough president) Scott Stringer in 2002 revealed that the city could generate more than $10 million a year to hire additional inspectors by actually collecting the fines the Environmental Control Board issues each year.

    The lack of enforcement, oversight and accountability within the Department of Buildings allows those developers and construction firms, who put profit before the safety of the public and their workers, to shirk city and state laws and codes.

    Liz Krueger, a Democrat, is a state senator from Manhattan's East Side. 

    The City Responds to the Foreclosure Crisis


    As a flurry of foreclosure papers blasts New York from Wall Street to Myrtle Avenue, anxious homeowners are flocking to community organizations for relief. They're hoping for someone to walk them through the labyrinth of lenders, investors and loan agents propping up the sub-prime house of cards.

    At the office of Neighborhood Housing Services of Jamaica, Queens, which counsels families on home financing, it's not unusual to see a client with an annual income of $30,000 suffocating under a $400,000 mortgage.

    "When you do the math," said program coordinator Cerinelly Disla, "basically, the income is not there to support that mortgage plus all of the household expenses." Yet, she added, as shaky loans rupture throughout the neighborhood, there are "no programs out there to help these clients."

    The city is trying to weave a new safety net for communities like Jamaica, where nearly half of home-purchase loans come from sub-prime lenders. The recently launched Center for New York City Neighborhoods ties together government, community groups, and the philanthropic and business communities in an effort to soften the mortgage market's hard landing.

    The Center's Mission

    As one of the first major citywide responses to the foreclosure crisis, the center is designed as a nonprofit hub for government, researchers and organizations to coordinate and improve services across different neighborhoods. A board representing community groups, the financial-services sector and foundations will direct the center's long-term work.

    Although it will have a small central staff, the center primarily will be a broad network of service providers focused on mitigating foreclosures. The linchpin of the initiative is its $5.5 million budget, funded mainly through the City Council, the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and the Open Society Institute, with additional support from Freddie Mac, HSBC Bank and Citi Foundation.

    Almost all the funds will go to organizations serving in hard-hit communities, which the center will select in the coming months. Grantees will administer programs ranging from legal advocacy to financial education.

    The center plans to fund three dozen counseling and support staff to deliver advice to several thousand consumers annually. Additionally, it will provide the organizations with 22 new legal personnel to handle about 1,000 cases. The main goal is to help borrowers renegotiate loans or refinance troubled properties.

    Sarah Ludwig, executive director of the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project, one of the groups that helped design the program, sees the center as a vehicle for both protecting neighborhoods and helping policymakers gauge the problem on a citywide level.

    "The vision," she said, "is to provide comprehensive and high-quality foreclosure prevention services that are also linked to more systematic policy reform and innovation."

    The Frontlines

    Figures released on March 6 found that defaults on home mortgages hit an all-time high in the final months of 2007. Recent estimates revealed that about 14,000 foreclosures were filed in New York City in 2007, compared to fewer than 7,000 in 2005.

    The crisis here has fallen along predictable demographic lines. An analysis of lending in the city by New York University's Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy reveals that blacks were four times more likely as whites to have sub-prime home-purchase loans, and Latinos were three times more likely. Recent research on mortgage data shows that sub-prime borrowing has been concentrated in lower-income and predominantly non-white neighborhoods, like Fordham and Bedford-Stuyvesant.

    While Albany and Washington mull policy measures to clean up the sub-prime mess, in the city's struggling neighborhoods, service organizations can barely meet the growing need for assistance, let alone approach the crisis on a structural level.

    "There are certainly issues around reforming the law, but a critical issue is that there just aren't enough counselors or legal advocates available," said Furman Center research fellow Solomon Greene.

    To remedy this, the Center for New York City Neighborhoods will reach out to counsel borrowers at every stage of crisis-whether they are just starting to fall behind on payments or verging on losing their homes.

    Counselors will seek to fend off foreclosure by bridging the communication gap between borrowers and lenders. When it comes to readjusting mortgages, loan "servicers" -- the agents hired by lenders as the collector and go-between for borrowers - are notoriously bureaucratic and unresponsive. Ludwig said the challenge of just getting through to a servicer on the phone, even for seasoned advocates, "can be maddening."

    Ideally, she said, a coordinated citywide response would enable advocacy groups to bring "incredible pressure to bear on mortgage servicers and on other entities within the industry to step up and address the crisis."

    The center is designed to evolve over the long term, potentially adding more extensive measures to help people keep their homes. According to an outline issued by the mayor's office, the center's partner groups could connect distressed borrowers to new government-backed refinancing programs. Albany's recent expansion of the state's "Keep the Dream" program, meanwhile, may boost city property owners' access to special refinancing options. The program's recently broadened eligibility criteria will cover a wider range of credit ratings and multifamily properties.

    Eventually, the center might work with the industry to develop a streamlined plan for modifying loans on a large scale.

    To aid borrowers who cannot avoid foreclosure, counselors might help negotiate sales to minimize homeowners' losses, while also guarding against developer land grabs, by focusing on local buyers tied to the community.

    A key goal is preventing bad loans in the first place. To preempt looming predatory lenders, programs run by community organizations will work to educate consumers about the mortgage process and their rights.

    Philip Lentz, communications director for the State of New York Mortgage Agency, which assists distressed homeowners in the refinancing process, said "the real tragedy" of the sub-prime crisis is that many people duped into risky mortgages could have qualified for prime loans. "But unfortunately," he said, "too many people were taken in by mortgage brokers or other institutions that offered them low rates. And it sounded too good to be true, and it was."

    Weak Foundations

    Beyond aiding individual borrowers, community groups want policymakers to confront the roots of the problem: the combination of flimsy regulation and Wall Street greed that greased the engines of the sub-prime market.

    Fair-lending advocates hope to give borrowers facing foreclosure stronger legal recourse against exploitative lenders, by revamping New York's anti-predatory lending law, which now covers only the costliest and riskiest sub-prime loans. Proposed legislation would establish responsible-lending principles for mortgages across the board, including standards for transparency, affordability and corporate accountability.

    "You could do financial education and homebuyer workshops, which are great, but you're never going to reach everybody," said Gregory Jost, deputy director of University Neighborhood Housing Program, a northwest Bronx-based community development organization. "The fundamental problem is that that whole system of making mortgages without accountability doesn't work."

    The Next Wave

    While the foreclosure crisis has wrought disaster on thousands of individual homeowners, the ripple effects may soon engulf the entire city. As foreclosures consume neighborhoods, property-tax revenues evaporate, utility bills go unpaid, and buildings deteriorate under the neglect of debt-strapped owners. A study of 2005-2006 mortgages by the national advocacy group Center for Responsible Lending found that in Brooklyn alone, the roughly 4,000 homes lost to sub-prime foreclosures would affect more than 740,000 other neighboring properties, draining over $12.5 billion from home values and the tax base.

    And since many of the city's foreclosures are multifamily properties, advocates warn that a second wave of hardship could affect renters: Distressed properties could be taken over by exploitative landlords, leaving tenants vulnerable to mismanagement or unfair evictions.

    Renato Jordan, an advocate with the tenants' rights group Bushwick Housing Independence Project, predicted that, over next several months, "we're expecting more people to come in saying, 'I'm being pushed out because of this.'"

    Some housing experts hope the foreclosure crisis will prompt deeper discussions on how to create more sustainable paths to homeownership.

    Advocates point to development schemes that pool vacant land for community-led housing development to help ward off blight or gentrification. In Flint, Michigan, for instance, the state-sponsored Genesee County Land Bank redevelops foreclosed properties to preserve affordable housing and local ownership.

    Though this "land trust" concept hasn't yet taken off in New York, community development organizations like the Fifth Avenue Committee in South Brooklyn and the Harlem-based Abyssinian Development Corporation have converted dilapidated housing units into affordable homes, building hundreds of rental and ownership opportunities for local residents.

    Groups calling for industry reforms look to the federal Community Reinvestment Act, which mandates banks to offer special services in low and moderate-income neighborhoods. Expanding the law could give underserved communities greater access to mainstream banks and stable loans. Outside the mainstream banking system, community-based credit institutions could offer a homegrown model for building neighborhood equity and seeding homeownership.

    "We need to not only develop financial institutions, particularly credit unions, that offer the types of products and services that these communities need, but to make underserved communities more aware of these institutions -- so that we can more effectively draw people away from the alternative financial sector, including predatory lenders," said Peter Bray, executive director of the New York City Financial Network Action Consortium, a nonprofit representing neighborhood credit unions.

    Advocates hope the city's unified effort to deal with the broad impact of the sub-prime crisis will yield wide-ranging solutions, for both households and surrounding communities. "The center's focus should not just be keeping individual borrowers in their homes," Greene said, "but also looking at the question more broadly: 'How can we help stabilize neighborhoods?'"

    Mark Winston Griffith, a the co-director of the Neigbhorhood Economic Development Project (NEDAP) and a fellow at the Drum Major Institute, has been in charge of the community development topic page since its inception in 2003.  

    Court Rules Tenants Can't Waive Their Protections


    When a landlord and a pair of tenants enter an agreement that works for both sides but happens to be illegal, combat and litigation are sure to follow. And now , after a dozen years, the happy arrangement involving 155 Riverside Drive has been totally dissolved by the highest court in New York state as a violation of public policy.

    When in 1996 Victoria Munroe and Eric Saltzman agreed to pay $2,000 a month or $675 more than the legal rent established for their rent stabilized apartment, the landlord, Riverside Syndicate, got a good deal. But it was a deal for the tenants too, and there was a reason for their willingness . Munroe and Saltzman, who occupied three apartments combined into one, had another residence in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Under New York's rent regulations, the landlord could have evicted the couple by establishing that they did not occupy the premises for more than 183 days (six months) a year. So the tenants were willing to overpay, if, in return, the landlord was happy to overlook the primary residence issue.

    The agreement also resolved the parties' sublease dispute in Housing Court. There, a stipulation (agreement) provided that the tenants agreed to '"waive all right to challenge the legality of the rent," and that '"regardless of their primary residence, the tenants may remain as the rent stabilized tenants." The agreement also provided that "if the apartments were deregulated, the landlord offer a renewal lease every two years at no more than an 8 percent increase."

    Four years after the stipulation was entered, the apartment was deregulated, and the parties agreed to a succession of two-year leases with increases of 8 percent, an amount in excess of the maximum allowable if the apartment had remained rent stabilized.

    However, in 2004 the landlord sought a court declaration that the agreement was void and unenforceable. As rents continued to rise, Riverside may have reasoned that, if it could set aside the stipulated agreement by showing that it was never valid, the syndicate would reclaim the apartment and rent it for much more than what Munroe and Saltzman were paying.

    Giving Up One's Rights

    When the litigation reached the Court of Appeals, the fourth court to be involved and the state's highest court, the judges decided unanimously, "Agreements like the one at issue here distort the market without benefiting the people the rent stabilization laws were designed to protect." In other words, though the tenants had voluntarily waived the protection of rent stabilization, that waiver defeated the protective purpose of rent stabilization.

    Although there are in law certain rights that can be waived, such as confession without lawyers, others, such as rent stabilization or child labor laws, cannot be surrendered. Judge Robert Smith wrote, "An agreement by tenants to pay an illegal rent for a rent-stabilized apartment, in exchange for an agreement by the landlord to let the tenants use the apartment as a second home, is void and cannot be enforced by either party."

    In addition, Smith ruled for the entire court, "The agreement is, on its face, one to 'waive the benefit' of rent stabilization, and is therefore void. ... In exchange for an illegal rent, the landlord agreed ... not to enforce its rights under the Rent Stabilization Code, to 'recover possession' of a 'housing accommodation' ... not occupied by the tenant ... as his or her primary residence."

    Discussing the public policy issue, the opinion said, "Such an agreement allows a tenant who already has one home, and who is able to pay more than the legal rent for a second one, to use the law as a means of getting that second home in perpetuity at a bargain price, ... and would violate the fundamental policies and purposes of the statutory rent regulation scheme."

    The Court of Appeals concluded that the agreement as to both parties was invalid from the beginning and that neither party can rely on it. Without specifying what the next steps would be, the court indicated that this matter would be returned to the lower courts where further litigation might result in refunds to the tenants and also possibly to returning the apartment to rent stabilization. It seems clear, however, that unless the tenants can establish that the Riverside Drive home is their primary residence, they will lose the apartment. And the winner is: the landlord.

    Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court Justice 

    Housing Market Faces Anxiety from Many Sources


    In February, the Rent Guidelines Board announces its schedule of meetings, the annual deliberations that mark the signal event for New Yorkers living in the city's largest stock of affordable housing, rent-stabilized apartments. This month, then, seems a good moment to take a look at the status of the city's housing economy, where a number of different factors are causing anxiety for renters, property owners, developers, brokers and policy makers.

    The Sub-prime Mortgage Crisis

    The sub-prime mortgage crisis has led to record numbers of foreclosures across the country and now is creating anxiety here as foreclosures increase in New York City. The federal government has been talking about various plans to address the problem, but nothing has come of it, at least not yet.

    Sub-prime loans, many of them taken out by people who cannot meet qualifications set by conventional lenders, often have far more onerous terms, including higher interest rates, than usual mortgages. Borrowers cannot meet the payment and default, particularly if the value of the property declines.

    At first glance, New York City's housing market appears largely to be unaffected by the sub-prime mortgage crisis. The average price of an apartment has gone nothing but up over recent years, and the most recent numbers reflect that, too. But looks can be deceiving: the sub-prime mortgage scandals are affecting many communities in the outer boroughs, where mortgage brokers were pushing these loans on mainly lower income and minority homebuyers and homeowners. I've written about the predatory lending practices that mortgage brokers used to push bad loans. It's unclear what the rash of foreclosures in some neighborhoods will do to the overall housing market, though.

    "We've had a very strong healthy housing market," said Jack Freund, executive vice president of the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord lobbying group. "I don't have a crystal ball, but it would be hard to imagine that (the sub-prime mortgage problem) is not going to affect the New York housing market. If liquidity is re-established in the overall market, maybe there's no effect in New York."

    Michael Slattery, senior vice president of the Real Estate Board of New York, agreed. "The recent reductions in interest rates will tend to ease some of that concern about the recession and make mortgages more affordable," Slattery said. "Hopefully it will bring people back into the market. There's reason to be optimistic; we'll see how the year develops."

    Others, though, see less reason for optimism. In October 2007, the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University reported that the city had a higher than average proportion of sub-prime loans taken by homebuyers and people refinancing their homes. A lot of these loans were simple con-artistry and the practices of the brokers pushing them often referred to as "predatory lending."

    The high proportion of sub-prime loans in the city - close to one in five loans taken by homeowners in 2006 was sub-prime - makes some experts nervous that the city's housing market could decline if many of those loans were foreclosed upon. That is already happening in poorer neighborhoods.

    The sub-prime crisis has led banks to tighten their rules on lending and many low- and moderate-income people now cannot get loans to buy new homes. One agency that counsels low- and moderate-income people said the housing market now is more or less closed to these people. Julia Fitzgerald, executive director of Neighbors Helping Neighbors in Brooklyn, said one statistic from a Furman Institute study sums up the problem: "In 2006, 5 percent of home sales were affordable to a person of median income. That just lets you know that basically, only 5 percent of units available to buy are affordable to 50 percent of the population. It's stunning."

    "We're now counseling people and placing loans when they are going to be spending 45 percent of their pre-tax income on their payments," Fitzgerald added. "That's a change just to try to help low and moderate income people to buy at all."

    Construction Crunch

    At the same time that foreclosures have caused havoc in the financing of housing, the costs of construction have skyrocketed, making the development of new housing more difficult, particularly for developers seeking to build affordable homes.

    "It costs us about $325,000 to build 1,000 square feet, and we're selling that for $75,000 to $125,000," said Josh Lockwood, executive director of Habitat for Humanity in New York City. In the last five years, construction costs have tripled, he explained. The agency's 41-unit condominium project in Brownsville-Ocean Hill was originally budgeted at $9 million; it is now going to cost about $13 million to build.

    Costs have increased due to a variety of factors largely beyond any single developer's control. Demand for materials like copper and equipment like cranes is international. Nationally, rebuilding in New Orleans and other parts of the country has driven up the price of basic materials like plywood. The war in Iraq, similarly, has sucked away materials and consequently increased prices. In New York City, the problem is compounded by the high cost of land as well and the increased cost of insurance in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

    Gov. Eliot Spitzer has introduced the first state-led effort in about two decades to aggressively help finance the development of affordable housing. Affordable housing developers support the proposal, which would provide $400 million to help build affordable housing and supportive housing. But political problems are jeopardizing the plan: $300 million of the $400 million fund was to come from the sale of land near the Javits Center, land that would not be used because the governor would scrap the plan to expand the center. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other city officials oppose the sale.

    "It's a great idea, but it's mired in all sorts of conflicting agendas," said Victor Bach, housing policy analyst at the Community Service Society. "We need the capital for housing development. It's the first time in a long time that the state has expanded the pool of funding for housing development. It's too bad so much of the funding is up in the air."

    Despite the increase in construction costs, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's New Housing Marketplace plan to build and preserve 165,000 units of affordable housing by 2013 is on target, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development said. The city has arranged the financing for 69,516 apartments so far, or 42 percent of the total, said Assistant Commissioner Neill Coleman.

    "We are on track with the plan so far and we expect to meet the 165,000 unit goal," Coleman added. "While we are certainly aware of the construction costs, it's not at a point that we feel that it is putting the plan's goals in jeopardy."

    Private developers express little concern about the rising construction costs.

    "Production is still going strong," said Michael Slattery, senior vice president of the Real Estate Board of New York, pointing to the about 30,000 new building permits issued in 2007. "Based upon pricing information, prices are still continuing to rise. The market still seems to be positive and good, although I think there's a general nervousness due to economic conditions.

    "Not every permit becomes a house, but I think it's an indication of the confidence in the city and the opportunity here. We're still a city that doesn't produce enough housing."

    The Existing Housing

    While they welcome new construction, housing advocates have urged more action to save the existing affordable housing in the city. Their efforts have coalesced into the statewide "Real Rent Reform" campaign.

    The city cannot simply build its way out of the affordability problems affecting so many New Yorkers, advocates have said. They are calling for stronger rent laws to protect existing affordable housing. Rent stabilized apartments have been under attack, advocates said, with landlords resorting to a variety of tactics to force out longtime tenants so they can increase rents significantly for new tenants. One part of the advocates' agenda is to repeal a provision of rent regulation law that allows landlords to decontrol apartments that become vacant when their rents reach $2,000 or greater. "The city has lost tens of thousands of rent stabilized apartments through vacancy decontrol, studies have shown.

    Another sign to advocates that the pressure for rents to increase will not abate anytime soon has been the entry of private equity firms into the housing market. All over the city, private equity firms have made big purchases of rent-stabilized buildings. Many of these firms seek to take an initial investment, increase its value by 15 to 20 percent, or greater, and then sell the property. Advocates see this kind of pressure to make short-term profits as ominous.

    "In the last four years, 65,000 units of affordable rent-stabilized housing have been purchased by private-equity backed landlords," said Ben Dulchin of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. "Traditionally real estate has returned eight, nine or 10 percent profit in New York City. Private equity firms have to return Wall Street-type profit levels of 15 to 20 percent. That seems to be why the private equity-backed landlords are taking a more aggressive stance in pushing out low-rent paying tenants."

    Dulchin said legislation to make harassment a serious violation and allow tenants to sue landlords who harass them could help. City Council is considering such legislation now.

    The sale of 50 buildings owned by Nicholas Haros, who has been singled out as one of the city's worst landlords by advocates, might have seem like good news for tenants in Queens where the buildings are located. But the buyers, backed by private equity firms, could be worse.

    Beyond rent-regulated apartments, virtually all types of affordable housing in the city are under some pressure to become market rate. Landlords try to buy out of affordable housing programs whenever they get a chance. The city's public housing agency, the largest landlord in the city and the largest public housing authority in the nation, is in the throes of a well-publicized fiscal crisis.

    The Board to the Rescue?

    All of the city's housing finance issues somehow figure into the deliberations of the Rent Guidelines Board, which analyzes reams of data as it weighs how much to allow owners of rent regulated apartments to raise rents. Its first public meeting to kick off its deliberations is March 25. In recent years, its 5-to-4 votes reflect that the board's final vote, this year scheduled for June 19, leave many people unhappy. Two years ago, tenants shut the board's final public hearing down with a cacophonous intervention that had been building for years. Stagnant wages have been a powerful argument against rent increases; ultimately, however, the market forces apparently cannot be resisted.

    The general state of the housing market today does not bode well for tenants hoping the board freezes rents or adopts a moderate or low increase.

    "On the renters' side there's no reason to believe that rents are not going to continue to escalate, as they have over the last decade," said Bach. "The city is still going through a growth spurt despite the recession, and that's putting increasing demand on the rental market. I don't see a major ebbing of rents in the very near future, certainly not in Manhattan and probably not in the outer boroughs."

    It's a simple question of economics, perhaps, suggested Freund of the Rent Stabilization Association. Fuel costs alone have been significantly higher over last year, he noted, and pointing to an ominous statistic: 10 percent of rental properties operate at a loss. On the other hand, he added, lower property taxes and more reasonable water rates could diminish the pressure on rents

    "Our point on this issue is that somebody's got to realize that you can't keep raising rents because incomes are not going up at same rate as expenses," Freund said. "Unless there is some curtailment of taxes and water and sewer rates, unless the city does that, it's basically going to drive out affordable housing."

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

    The Race to Develop a Toxic Waterway


    photo of Gowanus Canal
    Photo courtesy of Jim in Times Square.

    The Gowanus Canal in south Brooklyn at the center of a formerly active industrial area once bustled with ocean-going ships. Today, it bustles with real estate investors who are pressing to convert industrial properties to condos and reinvent the canal as a miniature Venice.

    One developer, Leviev Boymelgreen, plans to create a "Gowanus Village," and Bayside Fuel wants to build two 10 to 12 story towers along the canal. The city Department of Housing Preservation and Development is moving ahead with plans for housing on the eight-acre Public Place site, once the former owner cleans up the contaminated property. Last year the Department of City Planning completed a land use study of the area and is working on a rezoning plan that is likely to meet some of the expectations of developers for this district so close to the booming neighborhoods of Park Slope and Carroll Gardens.

    Many residents and experts question whether any of this is sustainable and takes into account serious environmental and public health concerns. Will the rush to develop make the area worse in the long run? Will the real estate bubble burst before the gondolier's dreams can be realized? Will rising sea levels due to global warming put the new Venice under water? Will the piecemeal remediation of toxic sites obscure the long-term threats to the human and natural environment? And will the thunderous roar and pollution from the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, the behemoth that looms over the Gowanus inlet, increase as more residents bring more cars so they can get to the area's new superstores like Lowe's, Ikea and Whole Foods?

    Hazardous Waters, Toxic Shores

    photo of Gowanus Canal
    Photo courtesy of Listen Missy.

    The Gowanus Canal is one of the city's most polluted waterways. For over a century ships and industries dumped their untreated wastes in the canal. Sediment that has built up over the years at the bottom of the canal is known to be highly contaminated. There is no clear plan to dredge and dispose of the waste. Any plan to accomplish this would face serious regulatory and cost constraints.

    The canal is also an outlet for massive combined sewer overflows. These are discharges combining stormwater and domestic sewage that occur during rainstorms because the city's wastewater treatment plants cannot retain and treat large volumes of waste.

    To improve the performance of the flushing tunnel, which helps clean out the canal, the city Department of Environmental Protection and state Department of Environmental Conservation have proposed a $350 million project to reduce the sewage overflows by 34 percent and skim off 78 percent of the floatable solids. While a walk along the canal in the summer can make you dizzy, city officials expect their efforts to result in "a substantial reduction in odors." Water quality in the canal would meet the standard for the survival of fish, though it will still be a long way from the pristine inlet it was when Indians fetched foot-long oysters from its waters.

    At a recent public meeting with the city's water experts many Gowanus residents did not exactly break out the sparkling to celebrate. Some remembered that when the flushing tunnel, which first opened in 1911, failed in 1961, it took the city almost 40 years to repair it. Over the years, the city has taken major action on water pollution -- building sewage treatment plants, stopping ocean dumping and addressing sewage overflows - only when the courts have forced it to. Thus it would be risky to wager on how long it will actually take to complete the work on the flushing tunnel or the expansion of the Red Hook sewage treatment plant, which will be needed to deal with all the new growth in the watershed (and forecast in PlaNYC2030). While the flushing tunnel project would address the problems at the surface of the canal, it will fail to reach the deeper ones. The water and earth below the surface throughout the area is contaminated. There is still no specific plan or budget to deal with the toxic sediment. Instead, development and remediation are proceeding one site at a time, only surface soil is being replaced, and many sites, like the recent Lowe's megastore, are mostly paved over. Park Slope Neighbors and FROGG-Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus) have complained that the Whole Foods store now under construction, which includes some elements of green architecture, will make stormwater runoff worse because the company refuses to build a green roof. Its hundreds of parsing space could increase traffic and air quality problems.

    Neither the city, state nor federal government is studying the long-term effects of this kind of development. Residents of the Public Place site and other housing in the area could face serious health risks from the surrounding environment. Even if the individual site is cleaned up, residents could remain exposed to health risks from properties that are not remediated as contaminants migrate.

    There is no systematic monitoring of environmental and health risks in the area. The environmental impact statements for the proposed projects are unlikely to address these risks in any serious way because adequate data do not exist. It is a recipe for chronic illnesses like cancer that develop over long periods of time.

    And there is little to no discussion about the long-term effect of the BQE traffic. Typically, mitigation measures proposed in the environmental impact statements for new projects call for air conditioners and double-paned windows to deal with noise and air pollution, offering the ominous prospect of a residential population that must stay indoors in order to stay healthy.

    Precaution and Restoration

    Amid the rush to real estate deals, there are some cautionary voices. For the last several years a team of faculty and students from Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation have been studying the Gowanus and talking to community groups and city officials. In the book Eco-Gowanus: Urban Remediation by Design, edited by Richard Plunz and Patricia Culligan, the researchers propose using what is called restoration ecology to promote a restoration economy. This would entail creating new industries and institutions on the canal that specialize in environmental cleanup, stewardship and green industry. They question the prevailing "cap and pave" approach that hides long-term environmental and health problems and argue against creating a new residential "monoculture."

    Given that the critical issues for the Gowanus are so big and have to be addressed over a long period of time, people may look to the city's planners for answers. But the city's long-term sustainability plan, PlaNYC2030, is quite broad and does not offer any solutions beyond the city-wide goals of improving sewage overflow, cleaning up brownfields and creating new housing throughout the city.

    The City Planning Department's rezoning probably will offer a new regulatory regime without a long-term plan. It is likely to allow for residential development on one side of the canal, preservation of industry on the other (though the nearby residential growth will put more pressure on industrial renters and set the stage for an eventual rezoning to residential) and a mixed-use zone that will effectively open the door wide for conversion of industrial properties to housing.

    The net effect in the long term is likely to be the residential monoculture that the Columbia researchers warn against. But City Planning could break precedent and go beyond zoning to deal with the complex planning issues in a way that is sustainable in the long run. Over two decades ago, the department did a detailed land use and business survey of the Gowanus that found a resilient industrial community and proposed measures to protect it. At a recent meeting of Brooklyn Community Board 6, the director of the Brooklyn City Planning office, Purnima Kapur, said of the current zoning study, "It will not be an easy or short process."

    For more information:

    Gowanus Lounge Blog

    Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus

    Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation

    Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club

    Gowanus Roundup (Brownstoner)

    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. 

    Stated Meeting: Housing Discrimination


    Finding an apartment in New York City is a challenge. Finding one with a Section 8 voucher or a Social Security check can be far more difficult.

    A simple search on Craigslist reveals that many apartments across the five boroughs will not accept applicants if they pay their rent with government assistance. "No programs," reads a listing for a one-bedroom apartment in an elevator building near Prospect Park.

    But under legislation approved by the City Council on Wednesday, that landlord would be subject to penalties under the city's human rights law for discriminating against a prospective tenant based on the source of his or her income.

    In addition to the housing legislation, the council also approved a resolution urging the state Legislature to repeal a tax break for Madison Square Garden, a bill that commissions a study on the city's stormwater management and legislation that requires the distribution of information on subsidized health care at day care centers.

    No Programs Accepted -- No More

    Any resident who receives a government-funded voucher for housing already must meet strict requirements, including income caps, location restrictions and time allotted to find an apartment.

    According to a report by the council's Committee on General Welfare, at least 75 percent of Section 8 recipients, who receive housing subsidies from the federal government, must make less than 30 percent of the area's median income. They must contribute at least 30 percent of their own income to their rent and find an apartment in 180 days.

    A study conducted by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, which was released last year, found that 21 percent of property owners in New York City have properties available that meet the federally funded program's rental limits, but less than 50 percent of them actually accept tenants with Section 8.

    This led Councilmember Bill de Blasio to introduce legislation (Intro 61-A) that would include income discrimination in the city's human rights law. Any property owner whose building has more than five homes cannot base a tenant's selection on the source of his or her income, whether it is cash, a Section 8 voucher or any other government subsidy. The council approved the bill by a vote of 38 to 8.

    It is estimated, according to the council, that 85,313 households lease Section 8 units from 30,067 landlords through the New York City Housing Authority. Currently, nearly 20 percent of people with Section 8 vouchers are unable to use them. When similar legislation was enacted elsewhere, like in Chicago, New Jersey or Massachusetts, studies have shown that Section 8 recipients able to actually participate in the program increased by an average of 12 percent.

    Advocates hailed approval of the bill which was first floated at City Hall in 2004. Oversight of the legislation will be under the Commission on Human Rights.

    "This law will provide sorely needed protection to tens of thousands of working families and seniors throughout New York City who rely on Section 8 to pay the rent and make ends meet," said Bertha Lewis, executive director of New York ACORN, in a prepared statement.

    Members who voted against the measure were James Oddo, Dennis Gallagher, Vincent Ignizio, Leroy Comrie, Erik Dilan, Simcha Felder, James Vacca and Peter Vallone Jr. Kendall Stewart abstained.

    Some opponents questioned the bill because it applied to landlords with as few as six units, meaning it would affect property owners who might not be able to deal with Section 8's so-called "red tape." Felder said there was no substantial evidence that Section 8 recipients are turned away because of the source of their income. He called the bill a "feel good thing."

    Mayor Michael Bloomberg has also voiced opposition, raising the possibility of a mayoral veto. In a statement to the Staten Island Advance , the mayor said the bill threatened established case law as well as property owners.

    In an e-mailed response, a mayoral spokesperson said the administration opposes the legislation. Instead the administration wants to reduce bureaucratic hurdles in the Section 8 program so landlords want to participate, not create obligatory legislation that targets landlords. The bill is a "solution in search of a problem," reads the e-mail.

    The vote's approval margin, though, would defeat a mayoral veto.

    Garden's Tax Break Blocked

    After years of debate, the City Council approved a resolution urging the State Legislature to rescind an approximately $12 million annual tax break for Madison Square Garden, which has been in place since the Koch administration.

    The resolution (Reso 90-A) was approved by a voice vote, and little opposition was heard.

    For 25 years, city officials said, the Garden, whose parent company is Cablevision, has not had to pay approximately $300 million in property taxes. The exemption was first granted during the 1980s, a bleak fiscal era for the city, to keep several New York sports teams, including the Knicks and the Rangers, inside the city limits. Now, said city officials, since the city is no longer at risk of losing these athletic franchises, it is time for the Garden to start paying.

    "Madison Square Garden is the only entity of the city of New York that has or has ever had an open ended tax abatement," aid Quinn. "They have been more than fairly compensated for staying in this city."

    Some members, such as council members Letitia James and Domenic Recchia, questioned whether the resolution equally treated other developments or corporations in the city. Recchia pointed to breaks given to both the Yankees and Mets for their new stadiums' construction, while James cited the breaks given to Atlantic Yards.

    The legislation's prospects, some observers said, does not look rosy, because Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is unlikely to take up the measure. (Some point to Bloomberg's doomed West Side stadium, which Silver blocked, possibly because of a lobbying effort by Cablevision in the state capital.)

    In response to the resolution, the Garden released the following statement: “We have previously communicated with the mayor and agreed to discuss this issue with him at the appropriate time. The City Council’s decision to single out Madison Square Garden, an engine of economic activity that provides jobs for New Yorkers, when more than a billion dollars in benefits have been given to the other pro sports teams in New York City is obviously based on politics, not sound public policy.”

    Stopping Stormwater

    In light of PlaNYC 2030, Councilmember James Gennaro introduced legislation (Intro 630) mandating the city draft a stormwater management plan. The plan will incorporate green building tactics to divert pollutants from the city's waterways. The bill was approved unanimously by a vote of 48 to 0.

    An estimated 27 billion gallons of untreated sewage enters waterways throughout the city annually, all because of a sewer system that is overwhelmed by more than one-tenth of an inch of rain. About 60 percent of the sewer system is connected to the stormwater system.

    Overhauling the entire stormwater system, which some advocates say is necessary to really solve the problem, is an overwhelming and expensive task, officials have said. This bill would attempt to incorporate "progressive and cost effective strategies," such as green roofs and permeable pavement, to address stormwater management, said officials.

    Insurance Information At Day Care

    A bill unanimously approved by the council by a vote of 48 to 0 requires day care centers to distribute pamphlets on health insurance. The bill, (Intro 293-A) sponsored by James, would add day care centers to the likes of the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which already distribute such information. James hopes with more information, the number of uninsured children in the city will decrease.

    Agency Rule Changes Go Electronic

    Under legislation (Intro 643) unanimously approved by the council, all rule changes by city agencies must be distributed to the public and the City Council at least 30 days prior to a public hearing. Though agencies are already required to distribute such information, the bill, which was sponsored by Felder, sets forth a timeline so citizens can fully digest and study the proposed changes.  

    A Campaign to Strengthen Housing Laws


    Unified as perhaps never before, housing advocates have come together to launch a major campaign to change the state's housing laws. They call it the Real Rent Reform Campaign, a pointed poke at the Rent Reform Act of 1997, the name given changes the legislature passed in 1997 that weakened the state's rent regulation laws significantly.

    At a recent organizational meeting, tenant groups from across the city and suburbs pitched this battle as historic. They are focusing on one pivotal goal: A Democratic takeover of the State Senate, a win that would end over a decade of control by Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, who called for the end of rent regulation in the 1990s and who effectively prevents passage of any progressive housing legislation.

    Changes in Albany State Government

    For over a decade under Gov. George Pataki, housing advocates had virtually no influence on state housing policy. They were effectively neutralized by Republican control of the executive branch and the State Senate.

    Already, barely a year after his election, Gov. Eliot Spitzer has at least changed advocates' influence on policy.

    "Now we're able to get answers when we call," said City Councilmember Gale Brewer of her efforts to get information from the state's housing agency, the Division of Housing and Community Renewal. "I mean, we're actually talking."

    The agency has been forging new ties to a variety of groups, signaling the change. A tenant advisory committee has been rejuvenated. Importantly to advocates, the agency is talking about taking action to enforce the rent regulation laws instead of just waiting for people to complain about landlords overcharging

    Advocates thank Spitzer for all of these changes. But in the face of the affordable housing crisis, advocates want to undo state laws that they assert have severely eroded -- and continue to erode -- the supply of affordable housing. Winning the State Senate for Democrats will help undo some of the damage done to rent regulation laws by the Republicans.

    The loss of rent-regulated apartments drives the new campaign. Simply put, advocates say, changes in the state's rent laws over the last decades have led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of these apartments, which make up the largest stock of affordable housing in the city. And the hemorrhaging continues apace: Virtually every neighborhood in New York City and suburban counties are seeing significant increases in rents. While advocates welcome the city's efforts to build new affordable housing, the number already built under the mayor's program -- about 70,000 apartments of a planned 165,000 -- pale in comparison to the approximately 1 million rent-stabilized apartments in the city.

    The Campaign's Goals

    The state's housing laws are in need of a vast overhaul, but advocates have set their sights on four key issues.

    • Repealing vacancy decontrol, a provision of the law enacted in 1997 that allows landlords to remove apartments from the rent regulation system.
    • Reforming the Rent Guidelines Board. The board's annual deliberations have led to rent increases every year since it was created in 1969. Under current law, the mayor appoints all members. Advocates want that changed so that the City Council would have to approve those appointments. They also seek new rules that would require property owners to provide more timely income and expense data. Currently, the data on how much landlords collect from and spend on their buildings is a year old, based on filings to the city's Department of Finance one year before the board deliberates.
    • Saving Mitchell-Lama and Section 8 projects. Landlords received tax incentives and other considerations to build affordable housing under these programs. But now that rents are rising, landlords been buying out of these programs and, in many cases immediately begin charging market rents. Advocates want new laws that would put these apartments under rent stabilization.
    • Repealing the Urstadt Law. The Urstadt Law was passed in 1972 and effectively prevents the city from making housing laws to affect rent regulated apartments. Advocates want the return of "home rule" to the city on its housing.

    Winning the State Senate

    Republicans hold their majority in the New York State Senate by the thinnest of margins -- 33 to 29. If the Democrats take just two seats from them in November, Democrats would control the body for first time since 1965. And that would effectively mean that a primary obstacle to progressive housing laws -- Republican Majority Leader Sen. Joseph Bruno -- would lose his clout.

    "It's the only goal for 2008" said a campaign participant who is optimistic that tenants can make the difference for the Democrats. He requested anonymity because he was representing his personal views, not those of the agency with which he is affiliated.

    Housing advocates have identified three vulnerable Republican seats: Serphin Maltese's and Frank Padavan's in Queens and Caesar Trunzo's in Suffolk County. "We're going to organize to take those seats -- we'll have phone banks, door knocking and other efforts," said Dan Jacoby of Democracy for New York City, a voters' rights group, and a member of the West Side Neighborhood Alliance.

    "After years and years of seeing bad things happen, the anger at what our governments, at various levels, are doing to us has mobilized people," Jacoby said. "Whether it's housing reform or health care reform or any other kind of reform, I think it's given a new life and energy to the idea that ordinary citizens can make a difference."

    Advocates know that Democratic control of the State Senate is not a guarantee that their agenda will become law. In fact, many blame Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver for allowing vacancy decontrol to become law after negotiations with Bruno and Pataki in 1997. But advocates hope that, if their efforts are seen as pivotal to helping the Democrats take control of the State Senate, they can use that as leverage to get the reforms they want.

    The Challenges

    The fight will hardly be easy, advocates conceded. Landlords will fight for their interests as well. In elections in 2006, landlord lobbyist groups donated almost $10 million to Republican campaign efforts, not much less than half what Republicans raised in total -- $26 million -- and roughly equal to what Democrats raised in total (about $11 million). Real estate interests have already been using their money at fund-raising events for likely 2009 mayoral candidates.

    The main landlord lobby group, the Rent Stabilization Association, declined to comment for this article. They maintain that government regulation hurts rather than helps solve affordability problems. In the past they have told me increasing governmental regulation simply drives up expenses for property owners.

    More recently, landlords have been flexing their muscles in opposition to legislation now pending in the City Council that would allow tenants to sue their landlords in housing court for harassment. City Council members told me that they have been inundated by calls, letters and visits from property owners across the city. The Rent Stabilization Association sent out a memo to owners about the bill, apparently unleashing the onslaught, a council member said. (I could not obtain a copy of the memo.)

    Without huge amounts of money, housing advocates hope to bring out the tenant vote. Many tenants, though, do not know that they live in rent regulated apartments, a big problem that at least partly explains why so many are overcharged for their rents. Advocates plan information sessions across the city so that tenants know what is at stake in November and how a change in Albany could lead to legislation to protect rent regulated apartments.

    For this to be successful, though, the advocates need to maintain their unity. Fissures and splinters, break-ups and make-ups have marked the tenant movement's history. For at least two years now, advocates have put together coalitions that appear very solid. But some advocates, who wished to remain anonymous to avoid appearing divisive, told me there could be a flare up of the old bad feelings. That might not break the unity, but it could hamper efforts.

    Finally, there are the normal sources of stress that can affect any ambitious campaign: lack of resources, worker fatigue, miscues and snafus of every stripe. While the campaign looked good as its leaders kicked it off on a recent Saturday afternoon -- an auditorium filled to capacity with representatives of diverse groups from across the city -- it still has not developed a media strategy or set up a Web site.

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

    Setting Standards for Green Neighborhoods


    Recent successes with green buildings have spurred new efforts to make whole neighborhoods more sustainable and environmentally friendly. But is the attempt to develop a "green neighborhood" stamp of approval just an industry marketing gimmick? The pilot projects chosen in New York City -- including Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, Willets Point in Queens and the Columbia expansion in upper Manhattan -- raise some serious questions about how green these proposed neighborhoods will be.

    The national push for green buildings has been aided by the United States Green Building Council, a group with over 12,000 member organizations and 70 chapters. It includes real estate developers, environmental organizations and professionals. The group's aim is to promote the development of energy-efficient, healthy and environmentally friendly buildings. The council operates the voluntary LEED certification system that rates buildings as Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum (the highest). Its Web site states that it "emphasizes state-of-the-art strategies for sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials and resources selection, and indoor environmental quality." It describes the rating system as "a practical rating tool for green building design and construction that provides immediate and measurable results for building owners and occupants."

    The Limits of 'Approved' Buildings

    There are only 15 LEED-certified buildings in all of New York City. Ten are in Manhattan and, to the credit of city government, three belong to public agencies. This accounts for not even 1 percent of new buildings in the city. The cost of certification and the need to plod through the council's numerical rating system make it a non-starter for many developers, especially small and medium-sized firms. Non-profit and public developers can participate in the program only when they have the money and staff to navigate the rating system. While LEED may apply to existing buildings, interiors and community facilities, eight out of the 15 projects in the city are for construction.

    Beyond all that, some experts have expressed concern that LEED certification is too narrowly focused on individual buildings and does not take into consideration the relationship of the building to the urban environment. After all, individual buildings can be environmentally friendly while at the same time contributing to destructive patterns such as suburban sprawl, displacement of viable communities and demolition of sound buildings and communities.

    With that in mind, the Green Building Council recently developed standards that look beyond buildings to communities and urban regions. The new LEED for Neighborhood Development standards address these concerns. In theory, this is welcome development for New York City, where certification has too often been used as a way to market high priced real estate development and to protect buyers from the city's environment rather than helping to improve it. Now, combined with New York City's new green building law (Local Law 86) and new city building regulations, the certification standards for neighborhood development could begin to turn the gray city green.

    The neighborhood development standards were developed by the Green Building Council along with the Council for New Urbanism and Natural Resources Defense Council. These national groups have played an important role in the critiques of sprawled suburban development and auto dependence. So the rating system gives developers points for: Smart Location and Linkage (30 points); Neighborhood Pattern and Design (39 points); Green Construction and Technology (31 points), and Innovation and the Design Process (6 points). In effect, the system favors development in built-up areas that have access to mass transit, projects that would reduce auto-dependence (i.e., "transit-oriented development") and designs that connect projects with surrounding areas and encourage walking.

    Standards for the Big City

    As admirable as these standards are and as successful as they might be in fighting sprawl in the suburbs, they run into problems when applied to New York City. Mass transit is just about everywhere in much of the city. A lot of new luxury megaprojects in Manhattan and Brooklyn are located near mass transit, but will not make any significant contributions to the improvement of service and so will increasing the demand on already over-burdened systems. Furthermore, these projects serve higher income residents, who are more likely to own cars than other New Yorkers, and the developers offer lots of parking to meet those residents' needs.

    Six pilot projects in New York City are being used to test and develop the standards for LEED For Neighborhood Development. One, Melrose Commons in the Bronx, is being built in the context of a comprehensive community-based renewal strategy spearheaded by Nos Quedamos/We Stay, a local non-profit. The development strategy advocated by Nos Quedamos/We Stay focuses on community preservation, contextual development and truly affordable new housing. This is one among many grassroots efforts to bridge the gap between green building and local neighborhood development.

    Citywide, the non-profit Home NYC provides a forum for such efforts, particularly for smaller buildings and in the outer boroughs where, after all, the vast majority of New Yorkers live. The most important virtue of such efforts is that they work with building owners and tenants and engage people in their local environments in the process of change. This is what is missing in most of the LEED pilot projects.

    The other pilot projects are mostly large-scale developments that displace local people and businesses. The communities surrounding these developments have raised serious questions about the proposals and challenge whether they should be built in the first place — not a question that the rating system addresses. None of the projects is a good example of a long-term community-supported strategy.

    Among the six pilots, at least three raise serious questions about whether the ratings are really anything more than self-promotion for developers -- who, after all, voluntarily agreed to take part in the pilot and, as with all LEED projects, put up the money to do so. The New York chapter of the Green Building Council includes among its sponsors some of the largest developers in the city, such as Related, Tishman Speyer and Silverstein Properties.

    Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards is being promoted as "transit-oriented development," even though the project's environmental impact study found it will encourage auto use. In addition, while the developer says it may build LEED-certified buildings, the environmental review showed that the project will leave most of the area in permanent shadows.

    Similarly, the city's project for Willets Point would create an isolated enclave, unconnected to Corona and other Queens neighborhoods, and set a bad precedent for brownfields cleanup by displacing viable businesses. Columbia University's West Harlem project would also create a separate enclave and faces strong opposition from local residents and businesses. Are these the right models for green neighborhoods?

    The missing element in these three pilot projects is community planning -- engagement with residents and businesses to find ways to improve the quality of life, whether through new construction or preservation of the existing built environment. City government has an instrument for planning at the neighborhood level but it is atrophied from lack of use and often abused. Since the City Charter was revised in 1989 to permit community plans, only eight have been approved. In place of comprehensive neighborhood planning, City Hall proposes either large-scale developer-driven projects or projects by individual city agencies.

    This could be addressed through a rating system for community planning comparable to LEED. It is hard, though, to imagine how the city would comply with such standards. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's long-term sustainability plan, PlaNYC 2030 is mostly a city-wide plan and did not include any significant involvement by the city's 59 community boards or the thousands of community-based organizations.

    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. 

    Expanding Wi-Fi Beyond Manhattan


    Municipal wireless may be struggling in other cities, but New York City's Wi-Fi cloud is growing steadily. In addition to the fee-based access points in Starbucks, McDonald's and other venues, various civic groups continue to deploy wireless hotspots in parks, apartment buildings and lower-income neighborhoods. Late last year, CBS announced it would start offering an advertising-supported wireless Internet service in a tourist-heavy swath of Midtown. But there are many steps the city could take to promote these efforts, especially as it works to promote Internet access across the five boroughs.

    Manhattan's Wi-Fi activity was on full display at a recent hearing of the New York City Broadband Advisory Committee, held at the Manhattan School of Music. The Downtown Alliance, NYCwireless, the New York Public Library and Harlem Wireless all spoke about their successes using wireless to promote economic development and increase quality of life.

    The previous meetings of the committee, held in the Bronx and Brooklyn, featured little discussion of Wi-Fi beyond its availability at the Brooklyn Public Library, which now has Wi-Fi access in all of its facilities. Most of New York's Wi-Fi projects are in Manhattan, so it's no surprise that the recent meeting, held in that borough, featured a more extensive discussion of Wi-Fi and what steps could be taken to spread this important Internet access tactic to the other boroughs.

    Strategies to Expand Wireless

    Dana Spiegel of NYCwireless presented a number of recommendations on how to do this, including developing a fund to give grants of $10,000 or so to associations that want to offer free wireless but don't have the capital to launch the project. Once up, maintenance costs for Wi-Fi are fairly low, Spiegel said.

    His organization has set up hotspots in a number of public parks. Since NYCwireless relies on host organizations to pay the startup and maintenance costs, the hotspots are concentrated in parks with well-funded support groups, such as Bryant Park. Similarly, business improvement districts that lack the resources of the Downtown Alliance cannot follow that group's lead in setting up public hotspots in lower Manhattan.

    Spiegel also suggested streamlining the Parks Department process for approving such projects. And, since Wi-Fi access points still need to connect to the Internet, Spiegel recommends building new, publicly accessible infrastructure to reduce bandwidth costs.

    Michael Lewis spoke about his Wireless Harlem Initiative, which is currently testing hardware to use in delivering Wi-Fi access throughout the neighborhood. He is frustrated by the city's Mobile Telecom Franchise process, which governs access to light poles and other city assets where he could mount wireless routers.

    Vincent Grippo, chief of staff for the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications pointed out that the department does have designated zones with lower fees, including most of Harlem, precisely to promote construction in those areas. The initial fee is $10,000 in the selected areas compared to $50,000 in most of the city and $100,000 in Manhattan below 96th Street. But Lewis contends that the fees were set up for cell phone providers or other big commercial efforts and represent a significant barrier for neighborhood initiatives like his.

    Your Neighbor's Internet

    The most common form of wireless Internet sharing is from neighbor to neighbor, where an in-home signal spills over through walls and windows, but this has several drawbacks. First, in most cases, it violates the Internet Service Provider's terms of use. (Some boutique providers like Speakeasy or Bway.net are more open-minded about their sharing policies.) Second, it usually involves using an unencrypted connection, which means private Internet traffic can be picked up by anyone in the area. And, third, it relies on neighbors who have a broadband connection and a wireless router.

    Even though the city cannot condone breaches of providers' terms of use, it could seek to encourage neighbor-to-neighbor sharing. Rich MacKinnon, who built up Austin Wireless to a community of nearly 100,000 users by working with businesses and government agencies that could legally share their networks, suggests seizing the moral high ground. "In order for a city to ethically encourage neighbor-to-neighbor sharing, it needs to identify neighborhoods that are demonstrably under-served and identify broadband-enabled neighbors within that area or in neighboring areas," he said.

    The city could work with broadband providers like Time Warner, Cablevision, and Verizon to establish "open zones" in the parts of the city with critically low broadband access where neighbor-to-neighbor sharing would be condoned. Unfortunately, City Hall is in the middle of video franchise negotiations with those providers, which means they are prohibited from discussing broadband with them because of the different way the federal government regulates the two services, according to Grippo.

    But that shouldn't prevent non-governmental efforts to promote neighbor-to-neighbor sharing and educate people on how to operate an in-home hotspot securely and legally.

    A Wireless Network

    Beyond individuals' desire to access the World Wide Web, the city has a vested interest in getting people online, since it will advance Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plans to move many city services, including 311, online. This is why Andrew Rasiej, a member of the Broadband Advisory Committee who ran for public advocate in 2005, finds it disappointing that the half-billion-dollar NYC Wireless Network (NYCWiN) the city is constructing will not be open to the public, even though could well be among the most robust such networks ever constructed.

    The original specifications for the network called for it to support multiple, simultaneous transmission of full-motion video or large files from and to anywhere in the city, real-time tracking of all city vehicles and control of traffic lights, continuous monitoring of air and water purity, transmission of patient vital signs from ambulances to receiving hospitals, and reliable voice communications to back up radio and cell phone signals. The network is operational in Manhattan below Canal Street. The information technology department expects the contractor, Northrop Grumman, to have the entire city covered by spring. The initial purpose is to serve the police and fire departments, but many other government agencies will eventually have access.

    NYCWiN is not technically Wi-Fi, since it will use licensed spectrum. Wi-Fi operates over a portion of the airwaves that the Federal Communications Commission has designated as unlicensed, or open to the public for use with any approved device. Nevertheless, in non-emergency conditions, NYCWiN will have a lot of unused capacity that could help civic projects keep their bandwidth costs down, as Dana Spiegel suggested.

    Rasiej also thinks the public could use citywide wireless access to contribute to government functions, perhaps by spotting potholes or suspicious activity. "There's still a firewall where elected officials understand that government is there to serve the people, but they don't think people can serve themselves," he said.

    Rasiej is confident a wireless network can be made secure for shared use by both the police department and the public. Nicholas Sbordone, director of external affairs for the department of information technology, disagrees. "It needs to work the first time every time," he said because the network is for emergency situations where every second counts.

    The city will release the results from the Broadband Advisory Committee hearings and extensive research conducted by Diamond Consultants. The release will include a plan for getting everyone in New York City full access to the Internet. As Diamond's team leaders have said Wi-Fi is by no means a silver bullet, but it can play an important role in a city's broadband strategy.

    Joshua Breitbart is policy director for People's Production House.

     

    Daniel Doctoroff's Legacy


    Daniel Doctoroff, the energetic and affable deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding, announced in early December that he is resigning after six years in that post. The press and others immediately reacted with talk of a legacy comparable to that of Robert Moses, the 20th century master builder who developed many of the city’s roads and bridges, public housing, and parks. Mayor Michael Bloomberg stated that Doctoroff’s development projects, unlike those of Moses, were not linked to the bulldozing of neighborhoods.

    Doctoroff’s other admirers pointed to major development projects that took shape under his mandate as evidence that the deputy mayor had overseen an urban “renaissance” – Hudson Yards and Midtown West, the rebuilding at Ground Zero, the Bronx Terminal Market, new stadiums for the Yankees and the Mets, and proposals for Willets Point in Queens, the Columbia University expansion and Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn. While Doctoroff’s efforts to bring the 2012 Olympics and a professional football stadium to the city ultimately failed, his record as an indefatigable advocate for growth and development is unmistakable. His detractors no doubt breathe a sigh of relief that many more of his grand visions are far from becoming reality. The New York Times, the Observerand other local papers talked of a mixed legacy.

    The Moses Analogy

    Whatever Doctoroff’s accomplishments may be, the comparison to Moses is a stretch, and the talk of Doctoroff legacy premature by decades. Moses spent over half a century building public infrastructure while Doctoroff spent little more than a half-decade promoting mostly private commercial and residential development. Moses built enormous amounts of low- and moderate-income housing while Doctoroff’s affordable housing program has not been robust enough to prevent a net loss in affordable units. Moses developed broad citywide plans and strategies for his projects, Doctoroff relied heavily on zoning changesto spur private market growth. Moses of course thrived at a time when public subsidies for development were abundant, while Doctoroff worked at a time when development was expected to be initiated by the private sector with the government serving as facilitator, junior partner and deal broker. Making any judgment about Doctoroff’s legacy would be premature until the full impact of his projects and initiatives on the lives of New Yorkers can be assessed. Doctoroff made many proposals -- particularly his major one, the redevelopment of Midtown West -- that he himself claimed would take several decades to reach fulfillment. Much can change in that time. Also, it will be difficult to separate Doctoroff’s legacy from that of the mayor with whom he worked so closely.

    Communities and Neighborhoods

    There is one major striking similarity between Moses and Doctoroff – they both claimed a monopoly on grand visions and overlooked the diverse ideas emerging from the city’s neighborhoods. Doctoroff reached out to civic leaders and neighborhood groups in a way that Moses never did. But rather than encouraging a two-way dialogue between City Hall and those who might oppose its decisions, Doctoroff's outreach usually resembled a public relations campaign to sell people on decisions that were already made. According to Greenpoint/Williamsburg community activist Phil DePaolo, when the city was pushing its waterfront zoning in that area, “Doctoroff met just with the groups that would get housing and not with others.”

    The mayor’s claim that Doctoroff, unlike Moses, spurred development without bulldozing neighborhoods is only partially true. Unlike Moses, Doctoroff did not enjoy the huge largesse of a federal urban renewal program that would have enabled him to buy up private property. In today's era of privately initiated development schemes, real estate developers for the most part have to do their own land assembly and bulldozing. The public sector's role is to approve the rezoning to make the development possible, and Doctoroff was more than willing to do that.

    By standing by without intervening, Doctoroff gave the city’s blessing to a number of major projects in which the Empire State Development Corporation, a state authority, promised to use its powers of eminent domain to bulldoze residential and industrial properties. Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn and the Columbia expansion in West Harlem are the most notable of these projects. In Willets Point, Queens, the city itself proposes to use eminent domain to displace 225 businesses and 1,800 jobs in favor of a hotel, convention center, and giant commercial and residential complex. Any claims that Doctoroff promoted development without displacement must ignore the secondary displacement that occurs when large-scale private development forces rents and property values so high that people cannot afford to stay in their neighborhoods.

    PlaNYC2030

    Perhaps the strongest argument for a Doctoroff legacy is PlaNYC2030, launched on Earth Day 2007. This long-range plan was clearly a priority for the mayor, but Doctoroff’s office played a central role in developing it. It is the first attempt at a strategic long-range plan in the city since the 1969 Master Plan, which was never approved. It is certainly too soon to assess the results of a plan that looks to the year 2030, but Doctoroff’s approach raises questions about how long the proposals will survive after he and Bloomberg check out of City Hall.

    The emphasis on sustainability and environment in the 2030 plan seems to flow from a long-term vision of large-scale real estate growth. Not long before the 2030 plan was released, the city’s Web Economic Development Corporation released a study by former City Planning Commissioner Alex Garvin that projected a vision of future growth around major transit hubs and over rail yards, leading to the dubious premiseunderlying the 2030 plan that the city’s population would increase by one million people. The Garvin report also noted significant deterrents to growth – lack of quality public space, traffic congestion, and pollution – that would later become a major focus of the 2030 plan.

    In the plan, Bloomberg and Doctoroff pushed the concerns about long-term sustainability to the forefront in strategic planning for the first time. But without the predicted growth what will happen to sustainability and environmental and public health objectives? And will the laudable environmental goals be achieved only in those areas targeted for new development?

    Even more problematic, however, is the fact that the next mayor, and his or her deputy mayors, could easily discard or overlook the 2030 plan. Even if they formally acknowledge the overall goals of the plan, they can ignore many specific objectives and programs. While any mayor has the power to undo the actions of his of her predecessor, the way Bloomberg and Doctoroff devised the 2030 plan make its future especially risky.

    The plan was the product of the mayor’s office and its consultants, not an open, public process of decision making. Instead of subjecting the plan to extensive discussion, debate and a vote, Doctoroff's staff made colorful presentations throughout the city, received comments on those presentations and rarely engaged in a back-and-forth dialogue. Certainly encouraging discussion, debate and votes by all of the city’s 59 community boards and the City Council might have been messy. The result, however, would likely have been a richer and more developed plan reflecting the visions of many more New Yorkers. This, in turn, would have left made many more people committed to its goals and objectives. While the plan might have taken longer to approve, it would have stood a better chance of getting implemented.

    The deputy mayor’s tendency to favor public relations over community dialogue seems to have been central to his style. A community board member in Brooklyn, who asked to remain anonymous because she is looking for a job in the public sector, told me, “Even in the Giuliani administration, which wasn’t interested in talking with communities, we could talk frankly with some city officials, but with Doctoroff it was all show….It was all about him, his rezoning and his development.” This person noted that when Doctoroff first met with community representatives to promote the Olympics 2012 plan, he was much more open to discussion, perhaps due to the premium placed by the International Olympic Committee on having sites that would remain as lasting legacies after the games are over.

    Doctoroff’s Future

    Many press reports about Doctoroff’s resignation and new position as president of Bloomberg LP, the media company founded by the mayor, centered around potential conflicts of interest because of Doctoroff’s intention to remain involved in the Hudson Yards, Queens West and other large-scale developments that he helped to shape. City conflict of interest rules restrict the direct involvement former city employees (paid and unpaid) can have with projects they worked on while in government. While Doctoroff is waiting for a ruling by the Conflict of Interest Board, most commentators seem to have missed the more important issue.

    The more serious question for city policy – and this is clearly a legacy question – is whether Doctoroff has successfully blurred the lines between public and private sector to the point that public officials at the highest levels no longer have to be held responsible for representing anything that might be vaguely denoted as the “public interest.” Doctoroff’s close personal ties to the CEOs of the city’s largest developers, who have benefited from rezonings, tax relief and subsidies from the city, may not strictly violate any laws, but when the discussions that matter and lead to policy decisions are made in the board rooms and not the community boards, the temptation to act in the interest of private developers is great.

    In an interview with Dominick Carter of NY1, Doctoroff spoke proudly of the expanded “portfolio” of agencies that Bloomberg had placed under his command at the start of the mayor’s second term. But was this former investment banker thinking of the agencies under his mandate in terms of the banker’s bottom-line or the public official’s mandate to serve the city and its neighborhoods?

     

    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. 

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Creating People-Friendly Streets


    Imagine Broadway as a pedestrian mall. Vehicles are banned, except for deliveries. Cafes and stores overlook a wide plaza, bisected by a row of trees. There are benches, chairs and tables where people can meet or take a break from shopping. Little kiosks sell coffee or a quick snack. Bicycle parking is plentiful.

    A few years ago, anyone suggesting this would have been laughed out of the room. It is almost a rule of nature that New York City streets exist to move as many cars and trucks possible, as quickly as possible, and to provide the maximum number of parking spots.

    But the balance is starting to shift. Two key goals of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's PlaNYC 2030are to reduce traffic congestion and increase open space. City agencies, including the Department of Transportation under its new bicycle-riding commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, are working intensively to lay the plan's groundwork before the end of the mayor's term.

    Streets for People - and Flowers

    Against this backdrop, many West Side residents and elected officials believe the time has come to reclaim the streets as public space. In November, several hundred people filled the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan to hear Jan Gehl, the Danish urban planner renowned for humanizing the streets of Copenhagen, London and dozens of other cities. Gehl's talk launched the Upper West Side Streets Renaissance, a campaign to radically reconfigure the streets led by Transportation Alternatives, the Project for Public Spaces and the Open Planning Project.

    Gehl is working as a consultant for the transportation department. With a team of volunteers, he conducted studies of how the streets are used in various parts of the city and made recommendations for supporting “walkability” in public life.

    He was not free to reveal his suggestions for specific locations, but his vision for the city as a whole inspired the Upper West Side crowd. He said there is plenty of room on New York's broad streets for bus and bicycle lanes, along with wider sidewalks lined with trees as on the boulevards of Paris. Where space allows, there can be flowers, nice benches, good paving stones and public art.

    " The nicer a city is, the more you will sit down, not to miss anything," he told a group of reporters on a walk earlier in the day. "New York was made to get from point A to point B. That has changed in many cities. It can change in New York."

    Rethinking The Space Between Buildings

    The city's minimum open space goal is 1.5 acres per thousand residents. Yet many neighborhoods, particularly low-income minority areas, fail to reach this bar. If current population trends continue, 59 neighborhoods will be deficient in parkland by 2030, according to the projections in PlaNYC.

    PlaNYC sets a goal of ensuring that every New Yorker lives within a 10-minute walk of a park. To do that, it proposes re-imagining the entire public realm, not just underused parks and schoolyards but also the public space between buildings, including streets, sidewalks, medians and unused asphalt at oddly shaped intersections.

    The plan proposes creating or upgrading a public plaza in every community district and filling in barren blocks with street trees. If this happens, along with reducing traffic congestion, extending greenways and encouraging bicycling, the city could be a much greener place 25 years from now.

    Although it would seem that taking away space for automobiles on some streets would clog other nearby roads, research showsthat doesn't happen. Instead, the traffic shrinks. When driving becomes too inconvenient or expensive, people decide to take public transit, carpool, bicycle or walk. In New York City, 90 percent of car commuters have another transit choice.

    Creating plazas, adding greenery and making it easier to get around on foot and bicycle offers many environmental, health and social benefits. These changes can also boost property values and business revenue. Studies have found that when safe and appealing public spaces make it easier for people to walk to stores, they spend more time shopping - and more money.

    People-friendly streets also help create a sense of community. Studies show that people living on heavily trafficked streets go outside less often and don't allow their children to play in the streets. Gehl believes that urban public gathering places are even more important now than they were in the past. "Today you can easily have a life where you do everything by Internet and driving," he said. "We have found that when we offer bigger public spaces, people come streaming out of their houses to see what's happening."

    Taking Back Broadway

    Gehl's ideas have particular resonance on the Upper West Side. It is a highly residential area, with a lot of families and senior citizens. Only 10 percent of the residents commute by car, but the high volume of traffic overwhelms the community's streets with noise and pollution and makes it dangerous to navigate on foot or bicycle. Two of the city's great parks - Central and Riverside -- bookend the blocks of apartment buildings and brownstones, but in between there are few public spaces, except for benches on narrow islands of greenery amid Broadway's tumultuous stream of cars and trunks.

    Over the next year, the Streets Renaissance campaign intends to bring together planners, elected officials, residents and businesses to create a blueprint to make the Upper West Side into the most walkable, bike-friendly and vibrant neighborhood in the country. To accomplish this, it hopes to introduce traffic calming and safer intersections, encourage bicycle and bus travel, develop a cohesive network of protected bike paths, address the pricing and best use of parking spaces, and reimagine Broadway as a pedestrian way.

    An exhibitdisplayed at the campaign's launch suggests some possible changes. A block of 81st Street zigzags around three alternating mini-parks (replacing parking spots), while wider sidewalks at the intersections make crossing safer and add space for plantings, seating and bicycle racks. On Amsterdam Avenue, a tree-filled median separates bicycle and bus lanes from traffic, and curb extensions provide more room to plant trees.

    Many ways of reconfiguring the streets would be inexpensive to put in place, requiring mostly a change in policy. For example, on weekends, half the streets could be closed to make playstreets. "You would within a year have a generation of kids growing up meeting their neighbors," said Mark Gorton, founder of the Open Planning Project, who lives on the Upper West Side.

    " Basically, every street should be thought of as public space," he said. "A lot of functions that we think of as belonging in parks - it wasn't always that way. Kids used to play in the streets."

    One participant in the effort is the Columbus Avenue Business Improvement District, which covers the stretch from 67th to 82nd streets. The business improvement district has been working for more than a year with the Project for Public Spaces to develop a plan for a greener, more inviting streetscape and has prepared a wish list for the Department of Transportation. It includes a physically separated bike lane, expanded sidewalks at the gateway intersections, benches and bike racks. The list also calls for the installation of Muni-meters so that parking can be priced to encourage turnover and make spots available at all times.

    The Beginnings of Change

    Whatever specific recommendations ultimately come from the Streets Renaissance campaign, there is no guarantee that they will be put in place by the Department of Transportation, which has to weigh competing interests, such as delivery trucks and business owners who want people to be able to park in front of their stores.

    Over the past few years, though, the agency has begun making some areas more people-friendly. It has altered streets and intersections to make them safer, and in 2006, it created a very successful temporary public plaza on Willoughby Street in downtown Brooklyn.

    These efforts have gained a lot of momentum now that PlaNYC is pushing all the city agencies in the same direction. At the Department of Transportation, Commissioner Sadik-Khan has refocused the staff toward the goals laid out in the plan.

    In the last half-year, the agency turneda parking lot in DUMBO into a pocket park and created a public space, a bike lane, and safer pedestrian crossings at the intersection of Ninth Avenue and 14th Street.

    To oversee the creation of four new plazas a year, as promised by PlaNYC, the agency hired Andy Wiley-Schwartz, formerly at the Project for Public Spaces, as assistant commissioner in its new Office of Planning and Sustainability. In an e-mail message, Wiley-Schwartz said that the agency is considering sites for new plazas, although none have been selected as yet. "We are especially looking to build plazas in 'underparked' neighborhoods to start, to help fulfill the PlaNYC goal of putting every New Yorker within a 10-minute walk to a park," he said.

    At the urging of City Councilmember Gale Brewer, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and the community boards representing the area, the Department of Transportation has also begun a comprehensive study of traffic, parking and pedestrian issues in the Upper West Side.

    Given the political clout of automobile commuters and their deep sense of entitlement to drive and park wherever they want, it is still a stretch to think that Broadway could one day resemble a European-style promenade. But clearly, more livable streets are coming to the Upper West Side.

    " I think we have a tremendous opportunity to push the envelope," said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, "to not just realize some very progressive street changes but also to lock in a whole new paradigm for street management that will continue into the next mayoral administration."

    Speaking at the Streets Renaissance event in November, Commissioner Sadik-Khan described a recent trip she and City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden had taken to Denmark. "To see how safe everyone felt on the streets in Copenhagen really affected me," she said. "I don't see why we can't have some of that here."

    The next event scheduled for the Upper West Side Streets Renaissance campaign is a talk on December 10 by Dr. Donald Shoup, author of the "High Cost of Free Parking," on how changes in parking policy can improve the public realm and generate the revenue to do it.

    Anne Schwartz, in charge of the parks topic page since its inception in 1999, is a journalist who specializes in environmental issues. 

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     



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